More than 600 farmers attended the first annual CropConnect Conference at Winnipeg’s Victoria Inn Feb. 18 and more than 530 showed up for the second day Feb 19.
“Everything I’m hearing about the conference has been pretty positive,” said CropConnect committee chair, Theresa Bergsma, who is also secretary-manager of the Manitoba Corn Growers Association.
CropConnect — a joint effort of the Manitoba corn, pulse, flax and canola grower associations and National Sunflower Association of Canada — evolved from the annual Special Crops Symposium. But the symposia were free; farmers had to pay to attend CropConnect — $75 a day if they registered early and $100 if they didn’t.
Bergsma admitted the committee was nervous about the change.
“We had some concerns we’d get some push-back on that, but we were really pleasantly surprised with the support from producers,” she said. “The speakers have been awesome. I think that’s what did it. We had a good program lined up and farmers responded.”
Speakers included Brian Hefty of Ag PhD from Baltic, South Dakota and British author Mark Lynas, who switched from campaigning against GM crops to becoming a biotechnology promoter.
Former National Hockey League player Dennis Hull entertained the banquet.
There were several reasons behind the decision to charge admission, Bergsma said. One was so organizers would know how much food to order. Another was to spend more on high-calibre speakers.
“Folks need to realize some of these speakers are costing us $10,000 and $15,000 and that’s a lot of money and we need a commitment from farmers that they are going to come,” Bergsma said.
“This is something that not all farmers come to, so a little bit of user-pay doesn’t hurt and that way those who don’t come aren’t paying for those who do (through their association checkoffs).”
Some industry players who set up displays were initially uneasy about the event expanding beyond strictly special crops and charging admission, Bergsma said. But they were happy with the show, which they say attracted “serious farmers.”
Bergsma said the committee will review complaints from some that holding the annual meetings for all the commodity associations concurrently meant farmers could only attend one.
The idea for holding them at the same time was so farmers wouldn’t miss any conference presentations, she said. They also hoped more farmers would attend at least one of the annual meetings. Still, most of the annual meetings were poorly attended by farmers.
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“We’re definitely going to try and figure it out,” Bergsma said. “Maybe we’ll just have to suck it up and say we’ll do it (at different times) and if people don’t come, it’s a coffee break.”
The newly formed Manitoba Wheat and Barley Growers Association also hopes to be part of CropConnect next year.
Adding a third day has also been suggested so some presentations can be repeated. However, the Victoria Inn, the only hotel large enough to handle the event outside of the downtown, can’t accommodate a three-day event in February due to other events. And it’s not clear whether farmers would commit to a third day.
Some of the crop symposia were held at the convention centre, but farmers complained about parking problems, Bergsma said.
“They told us loud and clear that they did not like going downtown,” she said.
The CropConnect committee is also considering ways to report to farmers about the cost of the event, which is partly paid for through checkoff dollars, Bergsma said.
“There was skepticism going into this year, but hopefully we’ve taken that head on and had a pretty good show,” she said. “We can only improve from here.”
In lieu of speaker gifts CropConnect organizers donated $2,500 each to Ag in the Classroom and STARS Air Ambulance.
The second annual CropConnect Conference will be held Feb. 17 and 18, 2015 at the Victoria Inn in Winnipeg.