Eleven wheat processors from Saudi Arabia have spent the last six months learning all aspects of milling and wheat processing at the Winnipeg-based Canadian International Grains Institute (Cigi).
“For me I can relate what I’ve learned to my work in the laboratory… so this helps me look at problems and ask, ‘How can I solve this problem?’” said Mohammad Alhammad who, like his fellow students, works for the Grain Silos and Flour Millers Organization of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The Winnipeg institute first bid on a request for proposals from the government-operated millers’ organization a few years ago, and has been welcoming groups of grain processors from the Middle Eastern kingdom ever since. The current group heads home this week, but next June another dozen participants will arrive.
“In terms of our broad goals Cigi does many things, and one of the things we do is fee-for-service programming,” said Rick Morgan, manager of business development at Cigi. “So a program like this isn’t particularly tied to increasing the sales of Canadian grain, but the money we make on it enables us to do other things that are related to our research and marketing efforts we do on behalf of Canada’s grain crops.”
While classroom sessions are part of the agenda, so are trips to farms, mills, rail lines and grain elevators. Industry experts are also brought in to provide instruction and hands-on training.
“They get milling training, they get maintenance training, electrical training, mechanical training, learn about looking after the mill and they spend time in our analytical lab looking at results, doing analysis on flours, as well as spending time in the bakery,” Morgan said. “We want them to have the whole picture.”
Participants also take home a new language. For six months before the program begins, they study English in alternate Canadian cities.
Taste of home
Of course, an entire year away from home and family can be tough, Alhammad said.
A test batch of Arabic bread at the Cigi test bakery stirred both homesickness and appetites.
“We smelled the aroma and we ate all the product,” he said smiling.
For Waleed Alzahrani, a mechanical engineer, the year provided many new experiences, including seeing Prairie grain farms.
“I am surprised by the huge farms, we don’t have that where we are from, there we have small areas for farms,” he said, adding Saudi Arabia’s arid climate can make growing cereals difficult without intensive irrigation, which threatens groundwater reserves.
In recent years the Kingdom has moved to phase out wheat production in an effort to conserve water.
According to a report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Saudi Arabia’s wheat crop could decline as much as 10 per cent this year, dropping to 700,000 tonnes from 780,000. The country’s goal is to eliminate domestic wheat production by 2016.
However, the nation will continue to process its wheat imports domestically.
“Saudi Arabia does buy some Canadian wheat and will probably continue to do so, but a program like this isn’t specifically tied to that,” Morgan said. But he added it’s always nice to send people home with knowledge of Canadian field crops.