A few years ago, a group of Japanese wheat millers was touring the Canadian Wheat Board building in Winnipeg. In the transportation department, where there was a large wall map showing all the rail lines in Western Canada, they received the standard presentation on logistics. The presenter explained that to save distance and costs, wheat from Alberta and western Saskatchewan went to Vancouver and wheat in eastern Saskatchewan and Manitoba went to Thunder Bay.
This was greeted with concern, and much discussion began among the group. Eventually, through a translator, one of the millers explained the problem. “We thought we were buying Manitoba wheat. You’re telling us it comes from Alberta?”
The confusion came from the name change for wheat grades in 1971. The official name for top-grade Canadian red spring wheat had been “No. 1 Manitoba Northern,” and although it was generally shortened to “No. 1 Northern” here on the Prairies, some overseas buyers to this day refer to it as “Manitoba” wheat. Perhaps because it rankled our neighbours to the west, in 1971 the grade unfortunately became the soulless “Canada Western Red Spring (CWRS)” which many buyers have shortened to “queers.”
“Northern” is being revived for the new red spring class this year, and though it might be churlish to mention it, that name will be applied not to CWRS but to a new class which essentially means “same as in the U.S.”
But we digress. The problem was easily resolved with the Japanese millers after it was explained while the name had been changed, the same high standards applied to all wheat from Western Canada, regardless of where it was grown, and that wheat from all three provinces might often be mixed in a cargo.
However, that point sometimes seems to be lost here in Western Canada. With minor variations, we’re growing the same types and varieties of grain and oilseeds across the Prairies, and they all end up blended in the hold of the same vessel, but we have separate provincial research and promotion organizations.
It’s one thing to have provincial general farm organizations to represent producers’ interest in areas of agronomy, environment, taxation and other areas of provincial jurisdiction. In other areas such as research and marketing, Prairie producers are better off combining efforts, avoiding duplication and speaking with one voice.
Based on the most recent annual reports, the three Prairie canola grower organizations had expenditures of $14.8 million, of which only 28 per cent went to research.
So far the wheat commissions seem to be doing better in that regard — of total expenditures of $5.6 million last year, the Saskatchewan Wheat Commission spent 75 per cent on research. In Alberta it was only 36 per cent on research out of expenditures of $4.7 million. The figures for Manitoba’s much smaller commission were not available at press time.
These organizations are funded by new producer checkoffs that sprang up after the end of the wheat board monopoly. But since 1981 there had already been a checkoff for the Western Grain Research Foundation, which was already doing a fine job of allocating research funds for wheat and barley. Why do we need three more organizations doing the same thing?
If three wheat commissions aren’t enough, we also now have Cereals Canada, with board members from the Alberta and Manitoba wheat commissions (but not Saskatchewan’s) as well as from the grain companies and seed/chemical companies. Cereals Canada has appointed itself as the organization to “provide leadership for the Canadian cereals industry.” Among its priorities are to “serve to inform the direction for research and innovation in the cereals sector,” and its stated first key area of focus is “understanding what our customers want.”
Presumably that’s now the role of the grain companies, plus the Canadian Grain Commission and Canadian International Grains Institute, which have decades of expertise in working with customers, but which are conspicuously absent from the Cereals Canada board of directors.
Meanwhile, we already had the Canada Grains Council, which has the vision “To be the leading recognized forum of the grains industry throughout Canada,” and which has some of the same board members as Cereals Canada, as well as Cereals Canada itself.
Then there’s the Grain Growers of Canada, again with some of the same members, and which has a mission of “Pursuing a policy environment that maximizes global competitiveness of Canadian farmers.”
Cereals Canada makes much of setting itself to provide a united voice among all these organizations. Maybe the problem isn’t the lack of a united voice, but too many organizations, and a lot of checkoff dollars going to plane fares and hotel bills for the representatives going to each others’ meetings.