Can farmers get along with industry without having to go along to get along?
That’s a question that our Brandon reporter, Robert Arnason, and I have pondered in the last two issues of this newspaper, in a two-part special report looking at the problems the wheat industry is having, and examples from the oats and canola industries that might show a way forward.
Our attention – Robert’s actually – was drawn to this issue by the obvious problems the Prairie farmer-based wheat checkoff organizations are having forming any kind of unified cross-Prairie organization, approach or set of common issues. There’s been a big push by the federal government and agricultural bodies closely associated with it to have Cereals Canada become something akin to the Canola Council of Canada, but that push has been opposed not just by supporters of the former Canadian Wheat Board monopoly, who won the elections for the Saskatchewan Wheat Development Commission, but also by some other cereals grains groups that have been pressured to join it. There’s no consensus on how closely wheat growers should be associated with industry, from province to province, or with government.
Is this just a holdover from the toxic and caustic politics of the CWB monopoly era and decades-long debate that drove some farmers into extreme left-wing and right-wing positions, and drove most non-ideological farmers crazy and into avoidance? Perhaps.
But both Robert and I have felt there are deeper issues underlying this than the old bad blood of CWB politics. Some farmers seem to think that everyone in the crop value chain can be trusted because everyone will obviously want a prosperous industry from top to bottom. This is the belief that a rising tide will lift all ships, so everyone must want a generally rising tide. Other farmers truly believe that the grain companies – who have taken an especially powerful position in wheat compared to other crops due to the intrinsic nature of wheat – and the “life science” companies are not only not to be trusted with improving an industry farmers rely upon, but are actually antagonists in the business. This is the view that the wheat pie is of limited size, with limited growth potential, and farmers need to unite to stave off the power of the others to slice off the biggest piece of the crop-growing profits for themselves.
This is a new issue in wheat, and that’s what Robert explored last week in these stories:
But this is an old issue in other industries. That’s where I came in. Robert asked me if I wanted to contribute to this project, and after he outlined what he wanted to explore, I immediately thought of two other industries I have covered for 20 years that have always had to deal with these issues. Canola’s evolution has been stunning, tempestuous and exciting, and farmers have been intricately involved in that the whole time. So those farmers offer a case study in one crop and industry, in which farmers don’t control the central forum, but are generally respected and listened to. The other is the oats industry, for which I have a particular fondness and admiration. I recall the first oats growers meeting I went to in the late 1990s when Manitoba and Ituna, Sask. proselytizers showed up in Saskatoon to try to convince farmers there that oats were a worthwhile crop to grow for more than just a late-seeded feed grain crop. And I’ve gone to most of their annual conventions since, and seen the whole industry gathered there – at a farmer-run and farmer-controlled event.
So I proposed doing a Part II to his look at wheat, considering the examples of oats and canola, and that’s what I tried to do with these stories:
I apologize for the brevity of the pieces, but there is only so much room on tabloid-sized news pages and a lot got left on the cutting room floor.
As Robert and I chatted about this over recent weeks we tried to forecast how the wheat imbroglio will resolve. I don’t think either of us proved to have any soothsayer skills, or the confidence to hazard a guess. Wheat’s a weird beast, so this one will probably take years to resolve.
And no doubt give Robert and I lots to write about. Stay tuned.