So many came to the Manitoba Wheat and Barley Growers Association’s (MWBGA) first annual meeting at the Victoria Inn in Winnipeg that hotel staff had to open an adjoining room to seat the crowd.
An estimated 150 people attended, 121 members registered and 117 cast ballots, defeating one interim incumbent director and electing three new directors to the organization’s six-member board.
The MWBGA was formed to collect a checkoff to fund research and development gaps created by the end of the Canadian Wheat Board’s monopoly in 2012.
Attendance at the meeting was boosted by interest in how future directors would be elected. The MWBGA interim board opted to hold elections at the annual meeting and elect half (three) directors annually. Other farmers have pushed for a mail-in ballot, which is used by the Manitoba Canola Growers.
Agriculture Minister Ron Kostyshyn also backs a mail-in ballot.
“It is my feeling that since they are contributing to the organization in the form of a checkoff, as many producers as possible should have a say in who will be managing their money,” he wrote in a letter to the editor of the Manitoba Co-operator.
Dean Harder and Drew Baker, two of the three new directors elected last week, support a mail-in ballot. Harder farms near Lowe Farm and Baker farms near Beausejour. Roblin farmer Robert Minsko was also elected. They join incumbent interim directors Fred Greig of Reston, Ray Askin of Portage la Prairie and Grant Dyck of Niverville on the board.
Interim president Don Dewar of Dauphin and interim director Doug Martin of Selkirk did not stand for election.
Incumbent interim director David Rourke, who farms at Minto, was defeated, as was challenger John Preun, who farms at Selkirk.
The five candidates addressed the meeting.
Misko, chair of the Parkland Crop Diversification Foundation, said the MWBGA has a good opportunity to take research funds and make the best of them for Manitoba farmers.
Harder said he is passionate about farm policy and plant breeding.
“I think we definitely need to make sure that funding from farmers comes back to farmers,” he said.
“A vote for me is a vote for farmer participation.”
Baker said he supports publicly funded plant breeding.
“I’m also for ensuring farmers have a strong voice,” he said. “I think we should all be coming together because if we’re all standing in a room shouting at the top of our lungs nobody gets heard. We need to work together.”
Preun, who farms 7,000 acres and raises hogs near Selkirk and has served as a director and chair of Manitoba Pork Marketing, said he wants to see research into feed wheat and barley.
Rourke has operated agricultural research firm Ag-Quest and has also run the farmer-owned Western Feed Grain Development Co-op. Kane farmer Bill Toews asked if that might be a conflict of interest given the MWBGA’s mandate to invest in research.
“Obviously it could be construed as a conflict of interest,” Rourke said, also noting he had turned over control of Ag-Quest to his daughter. “I think I offer a lot of experience and wisdom in how to conduct research, but I would certainly have to be taken out of that decision-making process if Ag-Quest was applying for funding or the Western Feed Grain Development (Co-op).”
Reston farmer Fred Greig, who served as the MWBGA’s vice-chair will act as chair until the association holds its first new board meeting in March when officers will be determined, said association executive director Brent VanKoughnet.
Mail-in versus meeting votes
The board believed conducting the election at an annual meeting during CropConnect, would attract a lot of farmers and based on the turnout, it did, Greig said.
He said mail-in ballots cost between $40,000 and $50,000 and on average only seven per cent of members vote. However, he added that would be a higher percentage than for an in-person election.
Greig also said the association only got a list of members’ addresses in January, leaving little time for staff to scrutinize it.
Electronic voting was also investigated but it would cost almost as much as a mail-in ballot and there are security concerns, he said.
Another option is to invite members to request a ballot be mailed to them. That would presumably save money, as ballots would only be going to those planning to vote.
As of Dec. 31, 2014 the MWBGA had collected $1.37 million in checkoff revenue, Dewar said. Farmers had requested less than three per cent of the checkoff collected be refunded.
“I think that’s a substantial show of support from you the membership and it’s a show of faith because we’re just getting going…,” Dewar told the meeting.
The association wants to spend at least 70 per cent of its revenue on research, 15 per cent on administration and communications, 10 per cent on market development and five per cent on special projects or the discretion of the board, he said.
The MWBGA has, along with a number of other Manitoba commodity groups, applied for funding through Growing Forward 2 to investigate ways they can work together to reduce costs.
“I think I read somewhere that (Manitoba) farmers are paying a half-million for CEOs (working for commodity groups) collectively,” Dewar said.
The MWBGA has met several times with the commissions in Alberta and Saskatchewan and the Western Grains Research Foundation, to discuss collaborating on research, Dewar said.
“I think the goal is to leverage that money as much as possible — at least 1-1/2 times…,” he said.
The MWBGA will rely on Cereals Canada, which it belongs to, for market development, Dewar said later in an interview.