Funding supports Winnipeg as grain sector hub

Federal and provincial funds | $33 million for grain research, production and processing

Rather than drying up and blowing away, Winnipeg has sunk its Canadian grain industry roots deeper in the post-CWB monopoly era.


The industry’s vital role in the Manitoba capital was reinforced recently by the announcement of $20 million in federal and provincial funding for projects based on a grain innovation hub concept comprising the city’s grain industry organizations and institutions.


“This is (federal and provincial) governments showing leadership, saying that, ‘let’s invest in Manitoba in what we’re good at,’ ” said Rex Newkirk, the Canadian International Grains Institute’s vice-president for research and innovation.


“One of the things that Winnipeg is good at is the grain industry, and we know that.”


The government money is intended to draw in another $13 million in industry funding, creating a $33 million pot to fund grain research, production and processing over the next five years.


Winnipeg is home to many grain industry bodies, including CIGI, the Canadian Grain Commission, the Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals, Pulse Canada and the Canola Council of Canada. 


It is also home to the head offices of many Canadian grain companies and offices for other Canadian and foreign grain companies. 


For many years, CWB was the anchor that seemed to hold the Canadian grain industry securely within downtown Winnipeg.


However, the elimination of CWB’s monopoly prompted many to worry that the fleet might drift apart, with companies and organizations ending up in cities like Saskatoon and Calgary, and causing Winnipeg’s core role to diminish.


However, while CWB has shrunk, other bodies have moved in and bulked up, including the recent entrant Cereals Canada, which is still forming as a national organization.


“It’s important for us to be here downtown in Winnipeg,” said Cam Dahl, Cereals Canada’s inaugural president, in an interview in the organization’s offices inside the historic Grain Exchange Building just behind Portage and Main.


“It’s pretty easy to get up in five minutes and go across the street somewhere and sit down with folks, if that’s what’s needed,” he said.


“Just being in the middle of the industry and being in the middle of the grain centre here in Winnipeg is pretty important for us.”


Dahl’s organization will be closely involved in helping co-ordinate some of the money that flows out of the federal-provincial announcement because its role is to bring focus and communication to research and innovation efforts for cereal grains. 


CIGI also hopes to use some of the funding for what it calls its “renaissance,” which is a rebuilding and beefing up of the institute.


“We’re constrained here,” said Newkirk.


“We’re turning away work. Things that can be done and should be done just can’t be done in our current facilities.”


CIGI hopes to be able to stay in downtown Winnipeg and is hunting for a new location to better house its grain processing, milling baking and extruding machinery. 


Grain industry players acknowledged that the federal-provincial funding announcement is the effective death knell for the idea of a grain industry centre of excellence, which has been talked about for years.


The idea was to build a new facility at the University of Manitoba, which could house CIGI and elements of the CGC, CWB, Agriculture Canada crop research and other organizations for a price tag of $200 million.


Now the focus seems to be on allowing the grain industry’s various players to develop separately but close by each other in downtown Winnipeg, with funding supporting projects and incremental development rather than through one bricks-and-mortar megaproject.


Newkirk said CIGI formerly supported the centre of excellence proposal, but now feels staying in the core of the Portage and Main grain industry hub is probably essential.


“With the people we’re bringing in (from around the world), we need access to hotels, we need access for something for them to do during the day, we want the grain companies to just walk over when they want,” he said.