A century later a key data report still informs the grain trade

The Canadian Grain Commission’s Grain Statistics Weekly celebrates its 100th anniversary this year

Top: When there were thousands of elevators scattered across the Prairies, data gathering was much more difficult. Seen here the very first ‘standard’ elevator, built in 1881 in Gretna.  Main: The G3 terminal elevator in Vancouver. These kinds of sophisticated operations make data collection relatively easy today.

Canada’s grain industry has changed a lot since 1921, but some things have been constant — sowing, reaping, and of course, the Grains Statistics Weekly. 

The publication, whose name succinctly describes its content, celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, the Canadian Grain Commission (CGC) announced recently on its website.

“In a lot of ways it (the 1921 version) looks a lot like the Grain Statistics Weekly we have now…” Kevin Morgan, a CGC statistician, who along with some colleagues, prepared a timeline of the publication.

Why it matters: Knowledge is power and for grain logistics, price discovery and marketing knowledge come through statistics. In fact, some farmers want even more, including statistics on major grain sales and grain prices at port.

The first edition of what in 1950 was renamed the Grain Statistics Weekly was published in January 1921 for the week ending Jan. 7. Its name then was Canadian Grain Statistics.

The report includes the volume of grain in elevator storage and grain shipments — information found in today’s Grain Statistics Weekly.

Although the CGC, then called the Board of Grain Commissioners for Canada, provided much of the data, the report was published for many years by the Dominion Bureau of Statistics, which became Statistics Canada.

The board had been sharing, and continued to share, information with North American grain markets through its Canadian Grain Position Report.

“We were collecting (in the early days) a lot of that information at the lakehead (Port Arthur and Fort William, now known as Thunder Bay)… and the markets kind of looked to us for the fast information and whatever Stats Canada was doing was the official information,” Morgan said in an interview Jan. 19.

Starting in 1912 the board had a statutory mandate to officially weigh and inspect Canadian grain.

(Click for larger view)

The Dominion Bureau of Statistics continued to publish the Grain Statistics Weekly until 1968 when it announced due to a “reduction in government expenditure,” the report was being discontinued.

The CGC continued to publish the Canadian Grain Position Bulletin providing useful statistics to the grain sector. But in 1971 the CGC, which was still collecting statistics, resurrected the Grain Statistics Weekly through its Economics and Statistics Division, Morgan said.

Back then it took between 70 and 75 people to gather the statistics, now it takes about five, thanks to automation and computers, Morgan said.

Vital

It’s said armies march on their bellies, and arguably, the grain trade is driven by statistics.

Ask an economist what’s critical to a well-functioning market and the answer will likely be transparency.

“In economics, a market is transparent if much is known by many about what products and services or capital assets are available, market depth (quantity available), what price, and where,” Wikipedia says. “Transparency is important since it is one of the theoretical conditions required for a free market to be efficient.”

Canada’s grain market is not completely transparent, but no market is, University of Manitoba agricultural economist Derek Brewin said in an interview Jan. 27.

“More information helps markets be more effective,” he said. “We’ve been collecting it (data) for 100 years so it has all sorts of capacity to help us understand the supply chain and for a guy like me who wants to study it over time… it’s really valuable.

“The big thing is the sector itself is using that information right now to plan the logistics.”

That makes the grain handling and transportation system more efficient, Brewin said.

“A more efficient supply chain makes the cost of moving the grain lower and the farmer gets a bigger share of the export dollar,” he said. “That’s just a good thing for Canada.”

Canada’s grain exports were so important that Winston Churchill, seen here with James A. Richardson, visited Winnipeg in 1929. photo: Richardson International via Twitter

The Grain Statistics Weekly, by tracking stocks, also helps the market determine grain prices, which are driven by supply and the demand.

Bruce Burnett agrees. The director of markets and weather for MarketsFarm (owned by Glacier FarmMedia, which also owns the Manitoba Co-operator) crunches grain stats for a living.

“There has to be some market transparency in order for the market to work,” Burnett said in an interview Jan. 19.

The CGC’s weekly report is critical because it has figures about grain deliveries, stocks and movement available nowhere else, he said.

“It’s the most current form of statistics that you get on exports,” Burnett added.

“Your ability to monitor what’s being shipped… is essentially limited to this report so it’s very important.

“There is a lot of information in that report if you delve into it. It’s not just the exports; it gives you an idea of the grain stocks in the country and how the supply chain is working.

“These numbers are important when our grain transportation system runs into problems because you can also monitor how things are going.”

StatsCan reports monthly on grain exports by destination, but there’s a two-month lag.

The CGC also reports grain exports monthly, but only based on CGC inspected grain which captures most major crops shipped by boat.

Current

In a crop year like the current one, with tightening canola stocks due to record exports, the Grain Statistics Weekly is more important than ever, Burnett said.

“It’s an almost essential piece of data to monitor what’s moving and how quickly,” he said.

Canola exports are outpacing last year’s. If market participants can see how much canola remains prices should rise to slow demand, so there’s enough on hand until the new crop is harvested, he said.

“That’s why these type of statistics are important because they give us some kind of idea as to how effective prices have been at doing this,” Burnett said.

Some farmers and analysts would like even more market information, including grain prices at port. Then farmers could compare them with country elevators’ prices to ensure the latter are fair.

Strong grain company competition should, in theory, keep the gap, known as the basis, narrow.

The Grain Statistics Weekly tracks grain exports, but not sales. The United States does both. There the public can see, for example, how many tonnes of American soybeans have been shipped to China and how many tonnes have been sold to be shipped later, Burnett said.

In Canada the public can see how many tonnes of canola were shipped to China, but not how many tonnes have been sold and yet to be delivered.

“We could have sold all of our canola by now to China through the various companies and we don’t know about that right now,” he said. “Is that a big deal? I guess it depends on how transparent you want the market to be. The U.S. is probably the only country that does this… it’s a bit of an exception, but… as an analyst would you find it useful to have Canadian data? Yes you would.”

Since 1973 U.S. grain companies are also obliged to report to the government within 24 hours grain sales of more than 100,000 tons. That information is then made public.

The rule was prompted by the so-called Great Grain Robbery. In July 1972 the Soviet Union caught American grain buyers off guard, quietly buying 10 million tons of U.S. grain at subsidized prices. When the market realized what had happened, global grain prices soared. For the farmers and companies who had already sold to the USSR, it was too late.

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About the author

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Allan Dawson

Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.

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