The Western Grains Research Foundation (WGRF), the farmer-run conduit for most of western grain farmers’ investment in agricultural research, wants farmers’ input on future funding and the foundation’s role.
“Breeding is a long-term process,” WGRF executive director Garth Patterson told Winter Cereals Manitoba’s annual meeting March 12. “You have to look 10 or 15 years out. You have to start planning for that now if there are new models out there that farmers want to be involved in.”
The WGRF is committed to continuing funding public research until at least 2020, Patterson said later in an interview.
“What’s important for producer groups during the next one to two years is to make some decisions and start implementing plans,” he said. “We can’t wait until 2020. There has got to be a planned transition.”
Potentially big changes are coming to how the WGRF is funded and how Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), which has received $82 million in WGRF funding since 1995, carries out its research.
Part of the WGRF’s money comes through checkoffs western Canadian wheat and barley farmers pay when they sell those crops. The checkoffs of 30 and 50 cents a tonne from wheat and barley, respectively, were collected by the Canadian Wheat Board but ended with its demise July 31, 2012.
The temporary checkoffs the federal government established end July 31, 2017. But newly created wheat and barley associations and commissions in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta are prepared to take over the checkoffs. What’s unclear is whether they will channel most of the money they collect through the WGRF or dole it out themselves.
Those new associations, including the Manitoba Wheat and Barley Growers Association, just recently joined the WGRF.
Meanwhile, AAFC says it will focus on upstream varietal development, instead of releasing market-ready cultivars.
“They haven’t given us dates, but they have said that to give more space to private industry,” Patterson said.
The WGRF, made up of 18 commodity and general farm organizations including Manitoba’s Keystone Agricultural Producers, will meet in July to tackle some existential questions.
“We’re asking the big questions like, what does success look like?” Patterson said. “Is it important to continue to have public varieties, but do you also want to attract the investments that private industry is making and commercializing in other parts of the world so you have choices?”
Patterson said the WGRF is not threatened by the possibility of reduced funding and a smaller role in research, noting the goal is doing what’s best for farmers.
More from the Manitoba Co-operator: Federal cash announced for oat research, marketing
“We think there’s value in taking a western Canadian approach but that will really be up to yourselves (Winter Cereals Manitoba) and others to decide in the end,” Patterson said.
“We do have some expertise and experience so we think it makes sense for us to be involved, but we recognize commissions and associations will be the ones collecting the checkoff. They’re the ones that have to make the decisions on that.”
The WGRF typically invests $7 million a year from funds raised by the checkoffs — $6 million for wheat and $1 million for barley.
No matter what happens the WGRF will continue to administer its endowment fund, currently at $109 million, he added.
Last year, the fund earned $18 million, but there are no guarantees, Patterson said. Some years the fund has earned nothing or lost money.
In 2013, the WGRF invested $3 million from its endowment fund into research, bringing total projects to 130, Patterson said.
Then there’s the question of how to invest farmers’ money. Patterson said farmers still want publicly developed varieties, which to this point account for 95 per cent of the West’s wheat and barley acres. It’s no wonder given the return on investment.
“It works out for every $1 of wheat checkoff going in from farmers there’s about $20 of value through the varieties whether it’s fusarium or midge (mitigation) or higher yield,” he said.
AAFC scientists Julian Thomas and Rob Graf concluded in a study last year Canadian wheat yields increased by an average of 1.4 per cent a year since the mid-1990s when the research checkoff was introduced, Patterson said. Most of those new wheats came from AAFC.
The researchers said half the gain came from improved genetics and the rest from better management.
“They found this 1.4 per cent is a little bit higher than the average gains in wheat yields around the world,” Patterson said.
The yield gains are similar to canola’s, during the same period, added Winter Cereals director Garth Butcher, who farms near Birtle.
With the pending introduction of UPOV ’91 and stronger plant breeders’ rights, probably followed by end-point royalties, some farmers are wondering if farmers should own the varieties developed through their investment.
In addition to varietal development the WGRF is funding many agricultural research projects ranging from wheat genomics and weed management, to pulse disease management and establishing a pest monitoring network.
One of its most recent projects is a study on where publicly funded agronomic research is at and where it is going, Patterson said.
“Most have said to us public production research is important and should continue and we shouldn’t rely only on the private sector for that,” he said.
The WGRF was created by several farm organizations in 1981 thanks to a $9-million endowment fund — money left from the federal government’s defunct Prairie Farm Assistance Act.
It began administering funds from the wheat and barley checkoff in the 1993-94 crop year.
The WGRF receives excess grain-shipping revenues and related fines when the railways exceed their statutory entitlement, also referred to as the revenue cap.
It has a staff of seven — five full time and two part time.