Farming in Manitoba has changed a lot during the 29 years Theresa Bergsma has been general manager of the Manitoba Corn Growers Association (MCGA).
As her June retirement nears, Bergsma has been reflecting on some of them, including changes to grain corn. A combination of improved hybrids, improved agronomy and longer growing season, especially in the fall, has seen average corn yields not only more than double, but become more reliable.
“There are years when we are just doing phenomenal,” Bergsma said last week in an interview. “That has been the most striking thing for me — how far we have come from.”
It’s unlikely any other Manitoba crop can match corn’s yield increases.
The five-year average provincial yield, including 2016’s record 147 bushels an acre, is 137. That’s up 88 per cent from the 1993 to 1997 five-year average of 73. (Public crop insurance data stops at 1993.)
But when Bergsma started working for the MCGA in 1988, the five-year average, based on Statistics Canada data, was just 57 bushels an acre.
That year Manitoba farmers grew 85,000 acres of corn and the five-year average was 95,000.
In 2016 there were almost 305,000 insured corn acres and the five- and 10-year averages are 283,000 and 203,000 acres, respectively.
“Consistently (now) when we have a record yield we are usually even higher than Ontario, which is very interesting,” Bergsma said.
“Whereas it used to take up to 15 to 20 years to bring an inbred to a hybrid it now can take as little as seven years. That is a big difference. That is why you see the speed of increase in good changes.”
As Manitoba corn yields have improved and stabilized, so too have plantings.
“Now we are consistently from 250,000 to 350,000 acres with the odd bump of over 400,000 acres depending on where the prices are,” she said.
In the early years plantings yo-yoed because of bumper or bust crops. Once every 10 years or so there was a wreck. But the worst recently was 2009, when corn averaged 46 bushels an acre. The last total bust was 2004 with an average of just 1.3 bushels an acre province-wide.
How farmers farm has changed just as dramatically. Bergsma recalls fathers skeptical about their sons’ push to add GPS technology to their equipment. But it wasn’t long before the older generation saw the technology paid for itself through less overlap of seed, fertilizer and chemical, she said.
Genetically modified corn has made weed and insect control easier. Corn hybrids have improved, producing higher yields even though they require fewer heat units to mature. Hybrids are also more cold tolerant allowing for earlier spring planting. And once established, corn crops are heat and water tolerant.
“All those things are really starting to come together and we are seeing the results of that,” Bergsma said. “I know for some parts of the province we would still like to be a little bit earlier just to bump it into the real safety zone.”
There have been many highlights for Bergsma, but the MCGA’s success in convincing the Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation (MASC) to improve corn crop insurance stands out, she said.
“I think the biggest gain we made in crop insurance was to convince them (MASC) that we should go to individual coverage for corn farmers,” Bergsma said.
Association board members found their straight 10-year average yields were higher than what MASC was using. The MCGA suspected many farmers on the fringe of the suitable corn-growing area were triggering crop insurance payments too often. Many had cattle, which were fed the corn that didn’t mature in time, plus they got a crop insurance payment.
MASC warned going to individual coverage could discourage some corn production. But the change benefited most corn growers, Bergsma said.
Manitoba has a good crop insurance program, but it’s not perfect, she added. The MCGA is still lobbying MASC to remove a deductible that kicks in if corn crops are written off in the fall before being harvested. Instead of getting 100 per cent coverage it drops to 85 per cent.
MASC, which introduced the deductible in 2010, said it is to ensure farmers who harvest a poor crop aren’t worse off than those who don’t because of the extra costs they face and because of reduced program funding. It’s unfair to put the cost burden on corn, Bergsma said.
“In our discussions with the new minister (Ralph Eichler) I think we will see some changes there,” she said.
Other highlights include building the MCGA’s Carman office in 2000. The association needed the space as the cash advance program it administers grew.
The office is also home to the Manitoba Pulse and Soybean Growers Association and the Manitoba Wheat and Barley Growers Association.
“I think it was a good move in a lot of ways,” she said. “It gave us our own building and own visibility, but the interaction between organizations was able to begin because you are in the same building.”
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Administering the cash advance program helped fund the MCGA until it began getting a half of one per cent checkoff on corn sales in 1998. Most of the money collected goes to fund corn research.
When Bergsma started running the MCGA it was a part-time job, but it wasn’t long until it was full time and more staff was hired.
Farm policy is one of the things Bergsma enjoys. When she started the job, in addition to crop insurance, the Western Grain Stabilization Plan was the main safety net for grain farmers. A long list of programs have come and gone since then, including the Net Income Stabilization Account (NISA), the Gross Revenue Insurance Program (GRIP), the Agricultural Income Disaster Assistance (AIDA) program, Canadian Farm Income Program (CFIP), Canadian Agricultural Income Stabilization Program (CAIS) with AgriInvest and AgriStability in place now.
“In the grain industry AgriStability, most guys are dropping out of it,” Bergsma said.
The MCGA is working through the Keystone Agricultural Producers and Grain Growers of Canada to find a program that meets governments’ fiscal constraints while providing farmers with predictable support, she said.
Receiving the Queen’s Jubilee Medal while serving on the Grain Growers of Canada board was another milestone for Bergsma.
“Your peers submit you for that honour,” she said. “To me that is the kind of recognition that I appreciate.”
Bergsma also praised the many MCGA directors she worked with.
“I wouldn’t have become the person I am in policy without the support of a strong board and a supportive board.”
Bergsma said she is going to miss working for farmers and staff.
While looking forward to spending more time with her husband Talbot, their four children and 14 grandchildren, Bergsma isn’t ruling out taking on some farm policy, but on her own terms.
“Anything that can move the ag industry forward I would still love to be involved with.”