The Canadian International Grains Institute is living proof that good things can come from hard times.
Back in 1970, Canada’s bins were bursting with a record wheat carry-over of 27.45 million tonnes — more than half of it on farms. The wheat carry-over was three times larger than the 9.79 million tonnes exported that crop year. Carry-over of the six major grains and oilseeds was a record 34.73 million tonnes, again, with more than half on farm.
Transportation difficulties and the breakdown of the International Wheat Agreement, were partly to blame. But shifting markets also played a role, Cigi’s third executive director, the late Arnold Tremere, said in a 1997 interview.
The notion of setting up a “one-stop shop” to show off Canada’s grain and oilseeds had been bouncing around in Jim Leibfried’s head since the American economist arrived at the Canadian Wheat Board in the early 1960s. The seed was sown while he was a graduate student at the University of Kansas. Unlike in the United States, Canada’s grain industry was located in one place — Winnipeg. As an executive assistant to the board, Leibfried pushed his idea.
Larry Kristjanson, the board’s assistant chief commissioner, ran with it and was backed by senior officials at the Canadian Grain Commission. The federal government agreed to invest $1 million to cover Cigi’s capital costs for classrooms, a small commercial flour mill and bakery and quality control laboratory located on the top floors of the Canadian Grain Commission building.
“This perhaps is the best $1 million the Government of Canada has ever spent in an infrastructure sense,” wheat board chief commissioner Lorne Hehn said June 12, 1997 during a banquet celebrating Cigi’s 25th anniversary. “It has paid dividends beyond what we could ever imagine.”
During the last 40 years 36,040 people from 115 countries have attended Cigi courses, says current executive director Earl Geddes.
“The people who were here 20 years ago are now the heads of those flour mills or bakeries or purchasing companies and they still have their Cigi certificate on their wall,” he said. “There is tremendous loyalty built up through these programs here in Winnipeg where you learn and socialize and build lifelong friendships with people.”
Evidence of Cigi’s success is found in the 800 inquiries a year from alumni seeking technical assistance on how to better use Canadian grains and oilseeds, Geddes said. “That tells me the relationship Cigi has built in terms of the technical competency has been very, very successful.”
Cigi’s annual budget ranges from $7 million to $8 million a year, up from $3.8 million in 1997. Back then it had 27 employees, now there are 35.
Initially, Ottawa covered 60 per cent of Cigi’s budget and the CWB 40 per cent. This fiscal year Ottawa contributed about half Cigi’s funding with 28 per cent from the board and the rest from commodity groups.
Cigi officials welcomed this week’s announcement of a new producer checkoff to support research, promotion and technical support for grains grown in Western Canada. The voluntary checkoff, to be administered by the Alberta Barley Commission,will replace funds the Canadian Wheat Board once supplied to the Western Grains Research Foundation (WGRF), the Canadian International Grains Institute, and the Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre.
Grain companies should also contribute to Cigi’s generic wheat promotion and will be charged when assisting a company with customer complaints, Geddes said.
“Farmers we’ve talked to are very clear that if we’re doing something to help a company make money then the company should pay.”
Earl Geddes said he is confident about meeting the challenges the organization faces, but Cigi’s former chair, Kane farmer Bill Toews, isn’t as sure.
Cigi, which since its creation in 1972 has trained thousands of millers, bakers and pasta and noodle makers from around the world on how to use Canadian wheat, will have to get the $2.2 million a year it now receives from the CWB contributed from farmers through a checkoff. But that’s not all.
“We’ll have to work differently because the wheat board contributed actively to all the programs that we did in terms of contacting and finding strategic markets,” Geddes said in an interview May 16.
“We’ve got to do some work on what a global wheat market overview is like so we’re making sure the dollars we’re getting from growers is going into the right market situations because before, the wheat board would do all that work.”
According to Toews the wheat board, which loses its monopoly over the sale of all non-domestic western Canadian feed wheat and barley Aug. 1, not only took the lead in creating Cigi, it is the heart of Canada’s wheat industry.
“It’s like putting a bomb under the whole system, blowing it up in the air and expecting it’s going to come down in some kind of form that’s going to be of some value to farmers,” Toews said. “How do we expect the system to remain in place given the other parts of the system are going to be emasculated?”
If Canada starts producing the same wheat as the United States, as some companies are promoting, Toews questions why farmers need to spend money promoting a brand that no longer exists.
Geddes said he expects farmers will want to keep promoting their product because their competitors are, and spending a lot more doing it.
Although Cigi, founded with strong financial and hands-on support from the wheat board focused initially mainly on wheat, for years now it has also promoted and provided technical support for many other crops, including canola, pulses and flax.