Francois Labelle thought he was going to be a horticulturist when he started a degree in agriculture in 1974, but his day job for the last 42 years has been in the grain business — mostly pulses crops.
As a student, Labelle, who retired as executive director of Manitoba Pulse & Soybean Growers July 15, worked part time at Kackenhoff Nurseries, not far from his family’s farm near Howden, just south of Winnipeg.
“I enjoyed horticulture and I still enjoy horticulture,” says Labelle while sitting in his screened porch July 6 in what seems more like a park than a farmyard. “I was taking all kinds of courses for horticulture. Between my third and fourth year, for a summer job, I was going to go back to the nursery again, but a prof at the university (of Manitoba), Anna Storgaard, told me I should do something different. ‘I think I’ve got a job for you,’ she said.”
It was with the renowned U of M weed scientist, Ian Morrison who passed away in 2006.
“That changed my career path,” Labelle says.
In his fourth and final year Labelle took a broader array of courses.
“Because of that summer research and the knowledge I had gained about herbicides, I ended up getting a job at Cargill (after graduating in 1978).”
The first day on the job at its Elm Creek elevator, Labelle’s boss asked why he wanted to work for Cargill.
“I said after four years of university I didn’t know a lot about the grain industry and wanted to learn. And 42 years later I am still learning,” Labelle says with a chuckle.
During those years his interest in horticulture continued on his own time on his 60-acre farm, with U-pick strawberries, raspberries and saskatoons.
Cargill, one of the world’s largest multinational grain companies, was a great place to learn.
“I did everything,” Labelle says. “I worked in the elevator the first year and in farm supplies… I spent some time cleaning grain… I got a broad look at what it was all about.”
Labelle ran an old wooden elevator, and worked at Cargill’s grain terminals in Thunder Bay and Baie-Comeau.
There was a saying if you worked for Cargill two years you’d be there for at least 10. In 1980, after two years, less two weeks, with Cargill, Labelle joined special crops buyer Seedex in Carman. Continental Grain bought Seedex in 1985.
“After I joined Seedex I went with the furniture,” Labelle says.
Agricore United bought Continental’s pulse business and it was taken over a few years later by Viterra.
Over the years Labelle says he learned a lot about the grain and pulse crop business.
“I bought grain from the growers for a while, I managed facilities, I marketed grain around the world, I travelled all around the world visiting customers,” he says.
The goal in the grain business, like any other, is making a profit.
“Risk management is a big part of the game,” he says.
With major crops such as canola traders can hedge — buy cash grain and sell futures contracts and then after selling the physical grain buy back the futures. Changes in one market are usually offset in the other. But there are no futures markets for pulse crops. (There are soybean futures, but technically soybeans are not a pulse because even though they fix nitrogen they are not harvested solely for their edible dry seed. Soybeans are mainly crushed for meal and oil.)
So instead, many pulse companies will establish what pulse buyers are willing to pay and then offer farmers optional contracts based on those prices.
The key is making money along the way, including by lowering costs.
“Can you get a better freight rate? Can you get a better trans-loading rate? What type of foreign exchange rate can you get today? They are all pieces of the puzzle.”
Pennies per tonne saved translates into big bucks because of the volumes involved.
“Making a deal, making money is always exciting,” Labelle says.
The world has changed a lot since 1978, and so has the grain industry. Booze was often a part of the business, whether you were a senior trader negotiating with Soviet or Chinese officials, or the local elevator agent entertaining farmers, he says.
Labelle didn’t try to keep up with some buyers’ tippling, knowing it would take three days to recover.
“The corporate world has got a lot more disciplined and less freewheeling,” he adds.
Labelle recalls a young elevator agent asked his father — a retired agent — how to get caked grain off the side of a bin. Suspend a stick of dynamite into the bin with a fishing line, was the answer.
“He blew the windows out the top of the elevator,” Labelle says. “When he called his dad, his dad said, ‘I should’ve told you to use half a stick.’
“It was a very different time.”
Labelle, who turns 65 in October 2021, retired for the first time in November 2012, but soon started taking on different projects, all the while sitting on the MPSG’s board, as he’d done since its founding March 13, 1984. In early 2014 the association was looking for an executive director. Labelle offered to fill in for a while starting Feb. 1, 2014.
“It has been very rewarding work, very interesting work,” he says.
“I got there at a time when soybean acres were on the way up. The organization was growing. There was a lot of opportunity to do things. The goal was always to improve the situation for the grower — improve the bottom line, or improve production — as long as it improves the bottom line.”
In 2013 Manitoba farmers grew 1.04 million acres of crop-insured soybeans, according to the Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation. By then, soybeans were already the province’s third-largest acreage crop behind canola and wheat.
In 2017 Manitoba farmers planted a record 2.22 million acres of insured soybeans, but after two years of below-average yields, plantings fell 39 per cent to 1.36 million acres in 2019.
Statistics Canada estimates 1.15 million acres of soybeans were planted this spring.
“I don’t think 40 years ago anyone would’ve said nitrogen fixing and so on would’ve been so important as it is,” Labelle says.
“There’s a tremendous future in the pulses, as well as the soybeans, for a protein alternative (including as an alternative to meat).”
Pulses improve the health of people and the planet, he adds.
“I think there’s a lot of potential there. I think Manitoba is in a great place right now with all the investment in value-added processing in the protein area. I think pulses are here to stay. I think we can grow more acres. But there’s always going to be a need for more and advanced research. The root rot issues on pulses are a problem.”
Many, but not all pulse growers, are helping fund research. That’s why he thinks MPSG’s checkoff on pulse sales should not be refundable.
“One of the things that’s frustrating is the number of freeloaders we have,” Labelle says. “I’ve told every minister (of agriculture) it (checkoff) should be made mandatory. My last argument is, how come my income tax is mandatory?”
When it comes to lobbying governments, farmers would be better off providing solutions to politicians instead of just asking for money, Labelle says.
“You need to plant the seed (for an idea), cultivate it and harvest it.”
So much more research is needed, he says, including into remote sensing, artificial intelligence and quick tests to assess levels of root rot in fields.
Never say never, but Labelle doesn’t plan to consult in retirement. He’ll focus on his interests including photography, leather craft (he wants to make harness) and tending to his 60-acre farm that includes sheep and miniature donkeys, some of which were in the 2017 movie “A Dog’s Purpose.”
Staying healthy is another priority. On Jan. 31, 2019 Labelle had an aortic dissection, a life-threatening condition in which the inner layer of the aorta, the large blood vessel branching off the heart, tears. Blood surges through the tear, causing the inner and middle layers of the aorta to separate.
“Twenty per cent of the people don’t make it to the hospital,” Labelle says.
He did, probably because it happened at work in Carman. An ambulance rushed him to the local hospital and he was then flown by a STARS helicopter to Winnipeg’s St. Boniface Hospital for an 11-hour operation. Five days later Labelle was home.
“It makes you reconsider a lot of things,” he says. “It’s a life-threatening, life-altering thing.”
After being off work four or five months, Labelle gradually returned to his normal four-day work week.
“I feel physically a whole lot better now. I just have to take care of myself a whole lot better. Eat better. I hate to say it, but I’ve given up alcohol. I had a little glass of wine last night but that was the first time in five months.”
Looking back on his long career, Labelle says there were a lot of opportunities and highlights.
“I think one of the most interesting things was getting to know people,” he says. “I think that was very important. The relationships and the people I got to know over the years is one of the absolute highlights.
“I still think agriculture is a great place to be. I see a great future in agriculture. I would encourage anybody to get involved in it. There’s so much great stuff happening, so much research, so much opportunity. Go with a dream.”