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Editorial: Commodity voice(s)

It was encouraging to see the reports emerging from the recent Manitoba Wheat and Barley Growers Association (MWBGA) annual meeting about the potential for collaboration among the key commodity groups in the province.

The MWBGA, Manitoba Corn Growers Association, Manitoba Canola Growers Association, the Manitoba Pulse and Soybean Association and National Sunflower Growers Association have enlisted a consultant to find common ground for how they might work together.

It’s a modern spin on a tale as old as commercial farming on the Prairies. Of course, a 100 years or so ago farmers called it “co-operate” rather than “collaborate.”

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canola seed in hands

The definitions of these two words are much the same, but the implications of this working-together business in the 21st century are vastly different.

According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, the verb “collaborate” means to“work jointly on an activity, especially to produce or create something.”

In the noun form, “collaboration” is “the action of working with someone to produce or create something.”

The verb “co-operate” means to “act jointly; work toward the same end.” However, a “co-operative” is a “farm, business, or other organization that is owned and run jointly by its members, who share the profits or benefits.”

In fact, the collaboration under discussion by these groups more closely resembles a “union,” which is defined as “ a club, society, or association formed by people with a common interest or purpose.”

However, most farmers don’t see themselves as the union type.

So why explore this play on words? Because although language changes over time, the underlying principles of working together have not.

Despite the fact that these organizations represent different commodities, their checkoff dollars all come from the same pockets.

As has been noted in recent news reports, the profitability in crop production is being squeezed by oversupplied markets and the inability of producers to collectively curtail production, as would happen in other industries. As agricultural economists from the University of Tennessee point out on the opposite page, the nature of crop production is such that planting decisions are disconnected from market supply-and-demand fundamentals.

Farmers may switch their acres to different commodities based on price outlooks, and they will push more acres into production when prices are strong. But when prices are weak, they’d rather gamble on a market turnaround than cut production and be caught without the ability to cash in on a rising market.

That means when low prices hit due to oversupply, those low prices persist for a lot longer than they might if supply was reduced.

Farmers will be looking for places to cut costs on their own operations and that may well extend to the organizations they support through checkoffs. It never did make sense for all of these commodity organizations to be maintaining independent offices and administration staff; it makes even less sense now.

These organizations need to be able to assure farmers feeling so-called ‘checkoff fatigue’ that they are doing everything possible to make sure those checkoff funds are going towards research, or they risk losing that support.


Seedy stories

Another Saskatchewan farmer was in the doghouse last week just as the acclaimed play “Seeds,” which tells the story of Percy Schmeiser’s prolonged run-in with modern-day seed laws, completes its run in Winnipeg’s Prairie Theatre Exchange.

Although the two stories are different, they both relate to the application of intellectual property rights to seed and society’s conflicting views around that.

Schmeiser was found guilty of breaching patent law by being in possession of canola seed containing Monsanto’s glyphosate-resistant gene without having paid for it. That case turned on whether it mattered how he obtained the seed: did it blow in off a passing truck or did he steal it? The courts ruled it didn’t matter.

Now Harvey Marcil of Pasqua Farms near Moose Jaw, Sask. will pay $150,000 to SeCan for breaching plant breeders’ rights after he was caught making unauthorized sales of SeCan’s PBR-protected varieties.

Patenting new traits and protecting Plant Breeders Rights is premised on finding market-based methods for supporting agriculture’s ongoing need for innovation. Farmers can see the benefits and to many, these enforcement actions are pretty cut and dried: I paid, so why shouldn’t he?

However, as playwright Annabel Soutar points out, the general public is generally comfortable with intellectual property rights when applied to non-living organisms, but less so when it is applied to seed, the foundation of life. It’s worth keeping in mind.

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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