Five Manitoba commodity groups were at St. Jean Farm Days last week, seeking input on a proposed amalgamation plan.
At the event Myron Krahn told producers that “we’re here because we want farmers’ feedback, we want ideas from farmers… we’re looking for as much feedback as we can get, positive or negative, it doesn’t matter.”
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The president of the Manitoba Corn Growers Association went on to tell producers that it’s taken the better part of two years to establish a blueprint for the proposed merger, but emphasized nothing was set in stone and that producer concerns will be addressed.
“The next step — once we get all the feedback — is to go back to the committees and see where things maybe need to be changed or strengthened,” said Dennis Thiessen, vice-president of the MCGA. “If farmer support is there, then we keep moving forward, if farmers are strongly opposed to doing it, then we keep going the way we are, we’re not tied to this at this point, but this is what we’re exploring and we are looking for farmer feedback.”
To that end, meetings are being held across the province and farmers are being asked to fill out and return a questionnaire on the issue.
Rob Hannam of Synthesis Agri-Food Network is facilitating the process on behalf of the Manitoba Wheat and Barley Growers, Manitoba Flax Growers, the National Sunflower Association of Canada, Manitoba Corn Growers and Manitoba Pulse & Soybean Growers.
“Those associations handle nine of the field crops here in Manitoba — and in the spring your farmer boards signed a memorandum of understanding to investigate collaborating. I came in at that point to support those boards, because when you’ve got five different groups it’s easier to have an outsider, a facilitator, to manage that,” explained Hannam.
The proposed merger would result in one board with 15 directors. Initially, each existing board would elect three of its own members to join the new 15-member amalgamated board of directors, but elections would take place over the next three years to replace the initial directors with ones elected by the entire membership.
“The board of directors… will represent all crops,” Hannam said. “We had multiple options, but what it really came down to is the farmers who are part of this organization grow multiple crops.”
He stressed that the board will still be farmer driven with a focus on research and agronomy.
“I think overall it’s best for farmers in Manitoba to work together and I think we can gain some efficiencies by working together,” said Thiessen. “I’m on the corn board and we already share an executive director together with wheat and barley, as well as research person. That has enabled us to have, I think, better-quality people in those positions and we get better value and are more hands on.”
The five commodity groups already share an office in Carman, as well as equipment used in field trials.
“It’s not as complicated as some people might envision, but it’s a reasonably good-size project to amalgamate all these groups and it will take a lot of effort to make happen,” he said.
But amalgamation is not without risks.
“It’s a big ask, we’ve got to recognize that. Five groups, nine-plus crops coming together as one organization, you know? It’s a big concept, if it’s going to happen, you’ve got to get it right,” said Dean Harder, a director with Manitoba Wheat and Barley Growers. “And if it’s not going to happen, then you’ve got to figure out what collaboration can look like and learn from this process too.”
Producers in St. Jean raised concerns about the possibility smaller-acre crops would be left by the wayside in a larger organization as higher-acre commodities dominated checkoff levies.
“Research investment for each crop will not be set at the checkoff level for that specific crop, it will likely be close to it, but it’s not going to be exactly the collected dollar on sunflowers, it may be a little more than the dollar, it may be a little bit less,” Hannam said.
Krahn added the idea is to have some flexibility in the new organization’s research model.
“Let’s use flax for an example,” he said. “We get this much money from flax and then… we’re forced to spend money on research that maybe isn’t that pertinent — if our guideline is to spend dollar for dollar when the timing maybe isn’t quite right for that crop.”
Others in the audience expressed skepticism that the process would result in a more efficient organization.
“It sounds to me a little bit like a bureaucracy being built here, that’s my first comment,” said Bill Walton. “My second comment is I think you really need to think about your timeline… there is legislation in the province that has to be followed and it may not be quite as simple as you envision.”
Hannam acknowledged that there was a regulatory process involved and noted a presentation had already been made to the Manitoba Farm Products Marketing Council, which would have to approve the merger.
He said the five existing groups have already discussed possible pitfalls and worked to minimize risk if the merger goes ahead.
“The first risk that came up is farmer-director work load, how will the directors of this new organization handle all of the crops?” he said. “The second risk I want to mention is levy refund, it’s a refundable levy, so if people disagree with the principle they can request a refund.”
However, he doesn’t think either would be insurmountable, noting that the merger won’t go ahead unless members approve of the amalgamation. Members of each organization will vote on an amalgamation proposal resolution at their respective annual general meetings in February 2019.
“To me, improved research and agronomy is the No. 1 benefit,” Hannam said.
“I do feel this group would have a stronger voice; when you’re together you have over 8,000 members.”