If you call Blair Rutter a “policy wonk“ he won’t be insulted.
“I love the policy side of things,” the 53-year old former executive director of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association (WCWGA) said in a telephone interview Nov. 2.
“I sometimes get mocked by my board for the way I’ll dive into a piece of legislation. But policy wonks understand, this is what makes us tick.”
After 13 years with the WCWGA — the last 10 as executive director — Rutter is “throttling back a bit.”
Robin Speer, who has worked in public relations and government, was appointed the WCWGA’s executive director Nov. 2 However, Rutter will stay on as a Special Advisor until March 15, 2016 to ensure a smooth transition.
Rutter, who was raised on a farm near Miami. Man., first joined the WCWGA, which advocates for “market-oriented policy solutions,” in 1992 as the Manitoba policy manager.
In 1995 he moved to United Grain Growers, which later became Agricore United, to be its policy manager. In 2005 Rutter returned to the WCWGA.
Before doing all that Rutter, who has a Bachelors of Commerce degree from the University of Manitoba, worked for CIBC for nine years. Deciding he wanted to work in agriculture, Rutter quit the bank to earn a Masters degree in agricultural economics.
Struggling with low membership, limited funds and director fatigue the WCWGA closed its doors briefly in 2003.
“I had to sell some memberships (in 2005) — that was a condition on which I got hired,” Rutter said. “I did so and raised some cash and then they were in a position to bring me on board.
“The highlight for me was restoring the voice of the wheat growers (founded in December 1969 as the Palliser Wheat Growers Association). They went through some dark days for awhile and I like to think that I helped re-establish it as a credible voice that is very much needed.”
WCWGA membership is up this year and on a sound financial footing, Rutter said.
“So I’m leaving at a time I feel very good about the organization. We’re in good shape, we’re in good hands.”
The WCWGA’s first goal was getting the Canadian Wheat Board to pay protein premiums on wheat. But it wasn’t long until it was leading the charge to end the board’s monopoly on the sale of Western Canadian wheat, barley and oats destined for export or domestic human consumption. The oats monopoly ended in 1989 followed by wheat and barley Aug. 1, 2012.
“On the policy side obviously marketing freedom is the thing we championed the most and one I look back on as sort of the greatest policy achievement we had during my tenure,” Rutter said. “But there were other things like the removal of KVD (kernel visual distinguishability) as a registration criterion — that’s paying dividends now — and the introduction of plant breeders’ rights, the trade agreements…”
The wheat board debate was divisive, spilling into grain transportation and variety registration, but now there will be more harmony, Rutter predicted. There’s strong farmer consensus in support of the new Prairie wheat commissions and association, according to Rutter. But as checkoff-funded organizations they must focus on market development and research, leaving room for policy driven groups like the WCWGA and the National Farmers Union, he added.
Western farmers have been complaining of poor rail service since the railways were built more than 100 years ago, but he is confident it’s going to improve.
“We did hit the low water mark back in 2013 (with a shipping backlog),” he said. “I do not see us ever going back there.
“It’s going to take better legislation, but the railways now recognize they can’t ignore the needs of the grain sector. I think also there will be improved linkages south — another marketing avenue. As farmers gain more options and we reduce our reliance on shipping by rail we’re going to be in a good place.”
Rutter intends to consult part-time on farm policy, but also wants to do more traveling and pursue personal interests, including family and Prairie history and chess. Rutter is president of the Manitoba Chess Association.
“I want a bit better balance and to have more time for those kinds of things,” he said.
Rutter’s replacement, Robin Speer, is originally from North Battleford, Sask.
He worked in Conservative MP Gerry Ritz’s constituency and Ottawa offices before Ritz became agriculture minister and at the Saskatchewan legislature. Speer served as Manager of Government and Commercial Relations at Viterra, as well as Vice President of Public Affairs at the Canadian Renewable Fuels Association.
Speer is working out of Cochrane, Alta., now but he and the WCWGA’s office will move to Saskatoon in the summer, Rutter said.