Small packages of a white powdery substance are quietly entering the U. S. from Canada on a regular basis.
It’s the good stuff – primo, in fact. But it’s not cocaine or heroin. Nope, it’s flour milled from Western Canadian Red Spring wheat, considered the best in the world.
And the “mules” hauling it south aren’t drug smugglers, they’re snowbirds headed to their winter homes.
“The people (snowbirds) I talk to all take their flour with them and they take enough for their American friends,” District 10 Canadian Wheat Board director Bill Toews told around 45 farmers at a meeting here March 3.
Turns out Canadians aren’t the only ones who appreciate quality wheat flour. Toews said he met a North Dakota wheat farmer who, after making sure no one was within earshot, confessed he gets his flour in Canada too.
“It’s not just by chance that that’s the case,” Toews said. “It’s because of the consistency that we can manage – not necessarily just quality, but consistency, which allows our millers to provide the consistent product that we do.”
Gary Sharkey agrees. He’s head of wheat procurement for Premier Foods, one of the largest food companies in the United Kingdom, with holdings that include Rank Hovis, the nation’s biggest flour miller and bread maker.
“We know milling and baking inside out,” Sharkey told farmers here. “If I were to go to one of my High Street bakers and ask them what quality or origin of wheat they would like in their bread product it’s always Canadian. In the U. K. it’s the highest-quality wheat we can get our hands on.”
Sharkey said he pays a premium for Canadian wheat, but can afford to because his customers pay more for the flour made with Canadian wheat.
“I spend a lot of time with retail customers in the U. K. and they want Canadian wheat,” he said.
The U. K. loves our wheat and pays top dollar too, but it’s still a relatively small customer. Last crop year (2007-08) the CWB exported 500,000 tonnes of high-quality milling wheat to the U. K., accounting for three per cent of the 15.4 million tonnes in total CWB wheat exports. Still, shipments to the U. K. were up almost a million tonnes from the year previous and a third more than the 10-year average.
Unfortunately for Canadian wheat growers, 80 per cent of the U. K.’s wheat needs are met by domestic production. The U. K. also imports, on average, 400,000 tonnes from European Union countries. But of the 600,000 tonnes of non-EU imports, Canada accounts for 40 per cent, said Chris Gillan, the CWB’s marketing manager for Europe, Africa, Middle East.
Sharkey said he also prefers Canadian wheat because he can trace it back to the farm where it was produced if necessary.
Asked by Altamont-area farmer Les McEwan if Premier Foods would buy Canadian wheat if it were shipped through U. S. ports or blended with U. S. wheat (presumably something that could occur if the CWB lost its single-desk marketing authority), Sharkey said no, because traceability would disappear.
Sharkey said he prefers dealing with the CWB because it ensures he gets the wheat he needs, even in years when Canadian supplies are limited.
“We only really want your No. 1s, but we feel we were looked after (in 2005 when western farmers harvested a lower-quality wheat crop),” he said. “We probably paid the price.
“You’ll be happy to know since I’ve been in the business for four years we have not bought U. S. wheat.”
Food safety is a big concern in the U. K. Sharkey said he appreciates the CWB’s effort in making sure the wheat it supplies is free of toxins.
“The last thing we can afford to do is have the Sun, the big daily newspaper in the U. K., to be reporting we have toxic wheat, so we are very diligent,” he said.
“The last thing we want to do in the U. K. is recall some of our flour products.
“We’re very, very keen on making sure that the quality parameters are met and we have that with the Canadian Wheat Board.”
Toews said Canada has an integrated wheat quality control system that starts with plant breeding and continues with CWB marketing, independent Canadian Grain Commission grading and market development through the Canadian International Grains Institute.
“We shouldn’t take it for granted,” he said. “If you start pulling on one of those little instruments in the system it can have impact on all the others.”
Sharkey, who previously worked for a farmer-owned grain firm in the U. K., was in Canada on this trip to meet with CWB officials, and said he asked if he could attend one of its farmer meetings.
In an inter view later, Sharkey said he was impressed with how knowledgeable farmers here are about world markets and their customers.
“My one and only plug for the wheat board tonight is they’re doing you guys a really good service,” Sharkey said, adding that the loss of single-desk selling in Australia has lowered wheat returns there.
“A lot of international traders started trading down there about 18 months ago and those guys are now falling over themselves to supply world customers. What has happened as a result is it has cheapened the price they pay their farmers.”
In an interview later Sharkey estimated competition among Australian wheat exporters has cut wheat prices by $50 a tonne.