Patti Miller’s early love of agriculture ultimately led to her recent appointment as president of the Canola Council of Canada.
“Even though I was literally raised in the city I just loved being on the farm so when it came time to make a choice about university there really wasn’t any question for me — it was agriculture all the way,” Miller said in an interview May 3, four days after officially starting her new job vacated after JoAnne Buth who was appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to the Senate. “I loved animals and growing crops and the food industry and everything connected with it, so it was a really easy choice for me.”
Miller was a senior manager of program delivery for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, a role in which she worked with grains and oilseeds producers and industry on policy, trade, market development and research. Prior to that, she managed communications for Cargill’s Canadian division.
She said her immediate priorities in her new role are getting to know the council’s staff and board of directors and immersing herself in council affairs.
The council, which began as the Rapeseed Association of Canada in 1967, represents all segments of the canola industry from seed developers to farmers, crushers and exporters. Miller is the council’s eighth leader following JoAnne Buth, Barb Isman, Dwight More, Dale Adolphe, Allan Earl, Stan Boulter and James McAnsh.
“Where we go next with the strategic plan is probably one of the next big-ticket items out there for us,” Miller said.
The council’s goal for Canada to produce 15 million tonnes of canola by 2015 could be achieved this fall, although based on seeding intentions of 20.4 million acres, it would take a record average yield of 37 bushels an acre. (The current average record yield is 34 bushels set in 2009-10. The five-year average is 32 bushels an acre.)
The target raises issues though. Pushing canola rotations raises the spectre of increased pest problems. Canola council agronomists are seeking ways to deal with that, Miller said.
Keeping China’s doors open to Canadian canola is also a priority, Miller said. It’s one of Canada’s biggest canola customers, but introduced restrictions in 2009 ostensibly over fears Canadian canola could introduce blackleg, a fungal disease, to Chinese canola crops.
China is the world’s second-largest canola/rapeseed producer behind Canada.
China restricted Canadian canola imports to crushing plants located away from its rapeseed-producing areas. However, Chinese officials said earlier this year nine more crushers will be allowed to buy Canadian canola later in the year.
The council is working on research projects aimed at addressing some of China’s concerns, Miller said.
So far this crop year (Aug. 1, 2011 to Feb. 28, 2012) China has imported 1.8 million tonnes of Canadian canola, making it Canada’s biggest export customer. (During the same period Japan, historically one Canada’s biggest canola buyers, imported 1.5 million tonnes. Together the two countries accounted for half of Canada’s canola exports so far this crop year.)
Miller grew up in Saskatoon but spent summers on her grandparents’ farms in the Tisdale, Sask., area. She earned a degree in agriculture from the University of Saskatchewan, followed by a masters in agricultural economics in 1986 at the same institution.
Miller went to Ottawa to work for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in 1985 where she worked in many different roles over the years. In 1990 she moved to Winnipeg to work with Agriculture Canada’s old grain-marketing bureau. In 1996 she joined Cargill to do communications and corporate affairs. In 2001 Miller returned to Agriculture Canada to work on functional foods and nutraceuticals.
Then she became executive director of Agriculture Canada’s Grains and Oilseeds Branch. During that time Miller also worked with agricultural industry on emergency management plans in the event of a pandemic or other large-scale disaster giving her insight to agriculture beyond grains and oilseeds, she said.
The last few years Miller was director general of Farm Income Programs, overseeing farm support applications and their processing.
The future success of canola, often called Canada’s “Cinderella crop” for its rags-to-riches story, will come in large part because of co-operation within the canola industry, Miller said.
“One of the reasons the council has been the success it has is because it’s got all of those groups represented,” she said.
“The integration of all the producers and the exporters and the crushers in one organization is really neat. It really is a success story. People say that all the time but it is.”
Canola is derived from rapeseed. Over years of research the University of Manitoba’s Baldur Stefansson and Agriculture Canada’s Keith Downey, reduced the erucic acid in rapeseed oil and the glucosinolates in the meal, making them safe for human and animal health respectively. Stefansson released the first “double low” canola variety in 1974.
Canadian rapeseed/canola plantings averaged just five million acres between 1970 and 1980. The last five years Canadian farmers averaged 17 million acres of canola, over taking wheat (excluding durum as the biggest acreage crop). Canola also has replaced wheat as the highest gross income-returning crop.
Canola isn’t just edible oil, but a “health food,” Miller said, alluding to the fact canola oil at seven per cent has the lowest level of saturated fat of any oil.
“The story around innovation in this industry I find fascinating,” Miller said. “This is basically a crop that was created in Canada and look at it go. It gives me goosebumps.”