Hundreds of protesters rallied outside a courthouse in southern Alberta Thursday, demanding that farmers not be treated as criminals for selling their own grain to the U.S.

Premier Ralph Klein joined the demonstration, but in the end about a dozen producers were led away by police to begin serving their sentences. Some of the farmers were handcuffed as their spouses and children cried.

The men were originally fined up to $7,500 for breaking the Canada Customs Act. But they refused to pay as part of a protest over what they consider an unfair law. The court ordered them locked up if money wasn't received by Oct. 31.

"When decent, hard-working Alberta framers are willing to take the extreme measure of going to jail for the sake of fundamental freedoms that other businesses take for granted, there is something wrong with the laws of the land," Premier Ralph Klein told the crowd.

The farmers were convicted of violating regulations that govern grain marketing in Canada. In 1996, they were charged with taking grain across the U.S. border without permission.

According to federal law, producers are supposed to sell certain grain to the Canadian Wheat Board. Critics think they can make more money on their own, and want the freedom to find their own buyers. Supporters, however, like the guaranteed price.

In the mid-1990s, wheat in the U.S. was selling for more than twice the price the board had set in Canada. Hundreds of farmers decided to export grain on their own, and were charged with breaking the law.

Those convicted were fined thousands of dollars each. A few refused to pay, launched and then lost legal challenges, and eventually spent about five months in jail.

Although Klein agreed the board has an unfair monopoly, he said he couldn't encourage people to break the law.

West saddled with 'discrimination'

One producer, Jim Chatenay of Penhold, Alta., faced time in jail for donating a bushel of wheat to a 4-H club in Montana.

He said many people in the West are furious because farmers in Ontario and Quebec can market their own products, while those on the Prairies have to sell barley and wheat to the board.

"To me, that's not fair," Chatenay told CBC Newsworld on Thursday, as the deadline to pay his $2,000 fine expired. He was facing 62 days in jail.

"What we really believe in is that in one part of the country we jail farmers for selling their grain ... and in other parts of the country they are allowed to sell their grain without going to jail," Chatenay said. "To me, that is discrimination."

The head of the Canadian Wheat Board, Ken Ritter, criticized the farmers' refusal to follow rules and then insist on being jailed as grandstanding.

Such protests are "not the Canadian way," Ritter said. "In Canada we debate, we discuss, we compromise and we believe in democracy."

Thursday's demonstration was organized by a minority of rebels, according to the federal minister responsible for the wheat board, Ralph Goodale. Most farmers support the current regulations, he said during an interview in Ottawa.

"The last time there was a plebiscite on barley a few years ago, the board received support from about two-thirds of those who voted and the turnout was 75 per cent, so that was a pretty significant endorsement," Goodale told CBC.