Breaking into grain inspection was tough, but the rewards were worth it

By Val Ominski

Debbie Pankewich has come a long way since she walked the decks of ships at Thunder Bay and sampled outgoing grain cargoes by hand.

Hired in 1979 by the Canadian Grain Commission to work in the weighing program, by 1982 she was one of a small group of female “pioneers” working in the inspection program. Traditionally, both disciplines had been a man’s domain — and Pankewich knew she was on ground-breaking territory.

“The microscope was on you and you had to prove yourself to other staff and to management,” she said. “For me, it was a motivating factor.”

Over the next 30 years, that motivation took her up the corporate ladder, first in Thunder Bay, then on to Winnipeg where she eventually established the national monitoring program that reviews the work of grain inspectors across the country.

When Pankewich moved on to Montreal, and then to Vancouver as manager of inspection services for the eastern and western regions respectively, it was fitting that her replacement was also a woman whose early days included hand-sampling in the inspection program before working her way up. Laurie Campbell was the first female grain inspector on the Prairies.

“I was a rarity in what some might consider a man’s world — I was in the last part of an era,” Campbell said. “It was tough walking into an elevator, but once they learned I was a farmer myself, it was much easier.”

Initially hired in 1986, by 1998 Campbell had become manager of Inspection Services for the prairie region, and in 2009, when the region was amalgamated into what is currently the central and western regions, she moved into her present position as manager of the national monitoring program.

She is adamant about the importance of inspection and grading, and the way they are done.

“You either have an aptitude for it or you don’t,” she said. “But you also have to develop a very unique skill set that needs to be constantly honed, to be sure you stay sharp.

“You look at a kernel of wheat and you have be able to distinguish between degree of damage and the direct correlation to qualities for milling and baking. Because of Canada’s reputation for producing top quality, we can export grain to customers based on a simple document attesting to this quality — something that a lot of countries currently can’t do.”

The inspection process starts when automatic grain-sampling systems take representative samples from each rail car going into a given port. Samples are first cleaned to assess dockage, and preliminarily inspected for moisture and protein. Then a grain inspector visually assesses and assigns the sample a grade which forms the basis of payment to the producer. Grain is exported using a similar process, and all information is stored electronically.

Gone are the days of inland (primary) elevator inspection on grain destined to port — and in the very early days, of breaking the seal on rail cars, climbing in overtop the grain, and thrusting a probe down to acquire samples. Gone, too, are the days of hand-sampling aboard ships.

According to Pankewich, not just the physical work of the job, but also the health and safety regulations have evolved. Back in her day, she said, “only the fittest would survive.” Many moved on.

She stayed, and today she manages an inspection program with over 175 employees who grade all grain moving in and out of west cost port facilities, and at service centres in Calgary and Saskatoon where farmers can bring or send samples for personalized grading at a nominal cost.

Campbell, meanwhile, runs the lab that checks the work of these and all other CGC grain inspectors from across Canada. She and her staff select graded samples from approximately three per cent of all railcars that go into ports, and a larger percentage from export cargoes, reviewing the grading that has been done in order to make certain current grain standards and guides have been met.

This process helps ensure that grain is consistently graded the same way, regardless of where across Canada it is being done, and also helps identify any training needs that may be required by inspectors, Campbell said.

“The process is not to point fingers, but to ensure our inspectors have the training and skill they need in order to provide consistent grading and analysis,” she said.

To maintain consistency in the lab, equipment is precision-checked each day before use — including the machine that exactingly divides down all components of samples, the screens used to separate dockage, the protein testers and the moisture meters. Precision scales are calibrate every day, and even the grading lights have an expiry date because they affect how the grain will be seen.

Despite her obvious passion for her job, there is a downside, said Campbell — and it’s that she no longer deals directly with producers.

“I really miss having that face-to-face contact and assisting them in understanding the grading system,” she said.

Campbell is still farming herself near Teulon, Manitoba, and said she is grateful to the CGC for allowing her to work her vacation schedule around her farm work.

Pankewich, too, is appreciative of the opportunities afforded her by the CGC. During her various capacities, she has travelled domestically and internationally to promote the quality assurance programs that make Canadian grains so reputable worldwide.

“The CGC has allowed for growth, development and movement,” she said. “I’ve loved the opportunities and the challenges — and I’ve taken them and ran with them.”

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