(Former) Editor’s Take: Our most important customer

It will take a couple of weeks until the final figures are out, but now that the 2019-20 crop year is over, it’s interesting to note how well grains and oilseeds have been moving, and to where.

As of Week 50 with two weeks left to go, producer deliveries were a whopping 60.7 million tonnes, almost five million ahead of last year. Exports of 42.6 million tonnes were just 350,000 tonnes behind last year’s record year at this time. Yes, it may have been because other shipments were down due to COVID, but it would be appropriate for farm groups to show they don’t always complain and give the railways credit for two good years in a row.

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Since the term “blocked exports” of canola continues to pop up in news stories, it’s notable that canola is the standout, with Week 50 exports at 9.7 million tonnes versus 8.9 million a year ago. If exports continued at the current pace, they’ll have ended at 10.3 million tonnes, just behind the record in 2016-17.

Canola exports by customer are only available to the end of June, when Japan led the list with just over two million tonnes, but not far behind was China with 1.7 million. No. 3 was the United Arab Emirates with purchases of just over a million tonnes. If, as assumed, that a good chunk of that is re-exported to China as oil, it remains the largest canola customer.

While that might not be official, there’s no question of that when it comes to total crop purchases. As of the end of June, it led the list with 6.2 million tonnes, including 1.4 million of wheat, 1.2 million of barley and 1.4 million of peas, plus the 1.7 million of canola and 79,000 tonnes of flax. Japan was a distant second with purchases of 4.4 million tonnes.

And then there’s pork imports, which for a while were also said to be “blocked.” They certainly aren’t now. China’s calendar year purchases to the end of May were valued at $778.3 million, 85 per cent ahead of the same time last year. That’s well ahead of No. 2 Japan with $617 million.

These numbers are a reminder that despite the political noise, for better or for worse, China is still the most important customer for Canadian farmers.

Kudos on GROW

Almost from the beginning, water management has been the most contentious issue in Manitoba agriculture, and for much of that time, it’s been dominated by one principle: send it somewhere else, ASAP. The problem is that those living and farming on “somewhere else” get the water.

Manitoba’s Watershed Districts (formerly Conservation Districts) have been instrumental in developing solutions other than digging more and deeper ditches, and it’s encouraging to see their role recognized in the recent announcement of funding of 20 project proposals with $5.6 million from the Growing Outcomes in Watersheds (GROW) Trust. Since these proposals require matching dollars, they represent a total of $14.7 million being invested in projects which will have a continued payoff from avoided damage from future flooding, and that’s just for this year. The notable feature is that GROW represents a provincial government endowment of three trusts totalling $204 million, so similar investments can continue every year in future.

Since the trust is managed by the Winnipeg Foundation and the project selection is made by the Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation, GROW operates at arm’s length. Projects won’t be selected on short-term local political considerations, and the trust will continue despite any future change in government.

These smaller projects which take advantage of local involvement and expertise can also be implemented more easily than big, expensive and environmentally questionable mega-engineering projects such as the new outlet for Lake Manitoba. Given its price tag of $540 million and that it continues to be stalled in the approval process, it’s even more clear how local “soft” or “natural” infrastructure projects make more sense. If there were more of them, maybe another Lake Manitoba outlet wouldn’t be necessary.

Precision farming tools have not only been identifying the best places to apply inputs, they’ve been identifying that some places shouldn’t be farmed at all. That matches the GROW Trust’s theme of “Farming the best, conserving the rest.” The provincial government deserves credit for taking this long-term approach for addressing that contentious issue of water management. It will be interesting to see the grassroots projects developed to take advantage of this opportunity.

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