MCA focused on research, but being pulled towards policy

While MCA doesn’t want to become an advocacy group, there are policy questions to address

Funding and directing research remains Manitoba Crop Alliance’s (MCA) focus — but there’s pressure for the fledgling commodity group to get more involved in farm policy.

Fred Greig. photo: Allan Dawson

“Farmers have suggested that we need to be more involved in advocacy directly on their behalf,” MCA chair and Reston farmer Fred Greig told the MCA’s inaugural annual meeting held online Feb. 11. “We have developed protocols and templates to help lead us through these often complicated and complex issues and proposals. Unlike research where we have a very clear agenda and priorities, advocacy and farm policies we don’t have so much yet. We presently don’t have staff or directors with much expertise in most of these areas so we often learn right along with everyone else.”

Why it matters: The main reason Manitoba checkoff-funded crop commodity groups were formed was to invest in research to make farmers more competitive and profitable. Because farm policy can potentially be divisive groups tread carefully.

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“Manitoba Crop Alliance is fundamentally a research organization with two-thirds of its (2020-21) budget (of $6.5 million) spent on research… ” Greig told the meeting.

“We sure don’t want to be a policy organization,” he said later in an interview. “You see some commodity checkoff organizations with research down in the 20 to 30 per cent of their budget and we never want to be anything but a research and innovation organization for sure.”

More than one-third ($4.28 million) of MCA’s budget is devoted to breeding projects in wheat, winter wheat, barley, corn and sunflower, CEO Pam de Rocquigny told the meeting

Nevertheless, there’s a long list of policy consultations related to Canadian crop production that farmers and MCA need to address, Greig said, including:

  • Value creation to help fund new seed varieties.
  • The Responsible Grain Code of Practice.
  • The seed regulation modernization review.
  • The Canada Grain Act review and operations of the Canadian Grain Commission.
  • The Manitoba government’s review of crop diversification centres.

MCA became a legal entity Aug. 1, 2020 following the merger of five commodity organizations — Manitoba Wheat and Barley Growers Association, Manitoba Corn Growers Association, Manitoba Winter Cereals, Manitoba Flax Growers Association and the National Sunflower Association of Canada.

The groups’ members voted at their annual meetings in February 2020 to amalgamate.

The merger process formally began in 2016 when the five groups, which were already co-operating, plus the Manitoba Canola Growers Association and Manitoba Oat Growers Association, agreed to explore the idea.

Canola and Oats opted out, but the rest signed a memorandum of understanding that took effect May 1, 2017 to investigate merging further.

MCA doesn’t have much information on what the provincial government has planned for diversification centres around the province, de Rocquigny said later in an interview.

Dec. 17 Manitoba Agriculture Minister Blaine Pedersen said in a news release a request for proposals (RFP) to review the current Crop Diversification Centre model had been issued.

“Through this process, we have a great opportunity to create a stronger alignment with research organizations and continue supporting sustainable solutions that benefit producers and the industry,” Pedersen said.

MCA is still working on its position on the draft Responsible Grain Code developed by the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Crops, Greig said. The code contains a number of practices farmers can use to make crop production sustainable and potentially attractive to foreign grain customers.

There has been push-back from some farmers complaining the extra hassle doesn’t guarantee better returns.

“It’s like trying to get your 4-H calf to lead and it just sticks out its front legs and locks them up and that’s it,” Greig said in an interview following the meeting. “I feel like farmers are kind of at that point where it was really the wrong time. That might not all be a bad thing. Regroup, reassess. I think there needs to be some regional differences (in the code).”

Although MCA is involved in consultations it “has adopted no formal position on the draft,” Greig told the meeting.

“Manitoba Crop Alliance will be reviewing delegate feedback as well as your comments on Feb. 17 and we will provide further information to our members.

“The Manitoba Crop Alliance supports the exploration of a voluntary document that communicates to end-users and consumers the great work farmers are doing to grow their food. The second is that we support the current consultation process to gather farmer feedback and we are encouraged to hear that Responsible Grain has added more time to the consultation timeline.”

Greig said in an interview customers have asked him about how Canadian farmers document their claims of sustainable production.

“If you want to tell them what a good job we are doing you’ve got to have a plan and all be singing off the same hymn sheet,” he said.

It would be great to be paid for sustainable production, but eventually that will be the ‘table stakes,’ Greig said. And because Canadian farmers depend so heavily on exports they have to deliver what buyers want.

“Please remember there are committed, intelligent, passionate farmers on both sides of this issue and the Manitoba Crop Alliance respects all positions and feedback,” he said.

“Farmers are smart businessmen. Given the right information, in the right time frame we always make the right decision.”

While explaining how MCA develops policy, Greig used the grain code of practice as an example.

First the board of directors develops key points and guidelines for directors and staff, he told the meeting. That often includes getting insights from directors and delegates already sitting on advocacy organizations such as the Keystone Agricultural Producers, Cereals Canada and Grain Growers of Canada that MCA belongs to, Greig said.

“It is critical for Manitoba Crop Alliance to engage and hear feedback for farmers before we formulate our opinion,” he said. “We are extremely careful not to steer or shape the discussion before producers are heard and to not circumvent the review process. In the end we will have a position based on science and the majority of producers’ wishes. It may or may not align with our sister organizations and advocacy partners.”

Greig also told the meeting it’s likely there will be less federal and provincial assistance for agriculture, putting pressure on commodity groups to fill the gap.

“We will be bracing for federal and provincial government cuts to agriculture,” he said. “Producers will be expected to support larger portions in all areas moving forward and we expect the same level of service and performance.”

Later during a discussion period farmer Ian Robson commented via the meeting ‘chat box’ that MCA shouldn’t accept government funding cuts.

“I appreciate your comments and want to reiterate that is never our starting position… ” Greig replied. “It’s always, ‘what did I get and what are you doing for me next?’ We want more as always.”


MCA’S revenue sources

  • Ninety per cent revenue comes from six crop types: spring wheat, winter wheat, barley, grain corn, sunflowers, and flax
  • Four per cent comes from its advance payments program
  • Three percent from interest earned on cash reserves
  • Two per cent from research trial fees
  • One per cent government grants

MCA levy by crop type

  • Spring wheat 78 per cent
  • Grain corn 12 per cent
  • Barley five per cent
  • Sunflower four per cent
  • Flax one per cent
  • A small percentage from winter wheat
  • Levy rates remain unchanged

Expenses

  • Research & Development 66 per cent
  • Administration and memberships 15 per cent
  • Market development nine per cent
  • Communications five per cent
  • Advance payments administration three per cent

Cash reserves transferred to MCA from legacy commodity groups, Aug. 1, 2020

  • Wheat – $11.7 million
  • Corn – $2.9 million
  • Sunflower – $308,301
  • Flax – $193,846
  • Winter wheat – $84,079

Source: Manitoba Crop Alliance

About the author

Reporter

Allan Dawson

Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.

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