These past two have been the most difficult years Miami-area corn grower Alan Kennedy has seen in 60 years of farming. But they’ve also been the most profitable per acre, thanks to a rare combination of weather and strong markets.
“This year looks pretty shakey, but two out of three ain’t bad,” Kennedy joked last week, as he wrapped up a brief address to his corn-growing colleagues.
Like others attending the milestone celebrations of the Manitoba Corn Growers Association here last week, Kennedy has found farming’s silver lining is sometimes fringed with cornsilk.
It was 40 years ago that he and a group of other farmers, fed up with constant price-taking in a volatile grain market, started looking at corn as a more profitable alternative. They were also looking for a crop that could find a fit in local markets.
Corn was a stretch. Until the 1960s, not much field corn was grown in Canada outside a couple of counties in southwestern Ontario. In 1971, just five varieties were available to Manitoba farmers to grow and just one of them, Morden 88, was a local variety. Any corn growing here at the time was confined mostly to the Carman-Altona-Morden corn triangle where there were adequate heat units. That year about 9,000 acres were sown, and 440,000 bushels harvested, for a total farm gate value of $55,000.
What the farmers who came together to form the Manitoba Corn Growers Association knew from the start was that finding a home for this crop in Manitoba required research and development, both for market use and for higher-yielding varieties cold tolerant enough to withstand Manitoba’s shorter growing season.
They also knew farmers needed to learn how to grow it.
What the MCGA couldn’t know then, was that 40 years later, corn acres would spread across the province, with yields jumping from around 40 bushels an acre to a now 10-year provincial average yield of 100. With promising new hybrids coming available, farmers now eye doubling those yields. The industry’s farm gate value in 2008 was $94 million.
It was combined support from researchers, who accurately predicted yields could potentially be increased about 1.5 bushels per year, seed companies, corn schools where farmers learned to grow corn, and innovative markets that got them this far, said speakers at last week’s celebrations, frequently evoking names of the industry builders and supporters.
The original growers’ aim was to create an industry all along the value chain that put money in farmers’ pockets, said Hank Enns, president of the MCGA.
“We have grown to be a strong association that’s created a profitable alternative to other crops just as these original growers envisioned,” he said.
A big kick-start came in the late 1960s when the Seagram Company, having adopted a Canadian-corn-purchasing policy, put its confidence in Manitoba by choosing Gimli to construct its whisky-making distillery. At the time, the multinational company was putting sustained effort into boosting corn production in Canada.
“What Seagrams taught us was how to grow quality,” said Kennedy.
Seagrams remains a small market for Manitoba growers today taking an estimated 10 per cent of production. The bulk of the crop – between 60 to 70 per cent – is now destined for the Husky Energy plant at Minnedosa to be processed into ethanol. The remainder is grown as feed.
It still isn’t a crop everyone can grow, but it’s certainly become the most profitable in rotations of those who can.
Gerald Schindel, who farms with his dad at Beausejour, has grown corn for about 10 years. They like the crop for a variety of reasons including its capacity to handle a wide range of weather, he said. They doubled their acres this year. “Next year I’d like to increase it a little bit more.”
Meanwhile, the quest for evermore cold-tolerant varieties in corn research trials continues and farmers keep going to corn school.
Corn remains profitable with prices at around $6.50 a bushel.
Acres sown to corn this year are at 192,000, up from 168,650 in 2010.
And the MCGA, as the first producer-led commodity organization to form in Canada, remains the longest continuously running grassroots organization in the country.
“Wehavegrowntobeastrong associationthat’screateda profitablealternativetoother cropsjustastheseoriginal growersenvisioned.”
– MCGA PRESIDENT HANK ENNS