How the Canola Council of Canada strikes a balance between industry and farmer advocacy

Living inside a big tent can have its advantages as long as it’s easy to duck out when things get too hot.

That’s the experience of some farmer representatives who have seen how the Canola Council of Canada has managed to have a strong farmer component, while also giving equal power and play to other parts of the industry.

“Just because we come together as an industry does not mean we don’t push for advancing farmer interests, even if it means other parts of the industry aren’t happy with us,” said Brett Halstead, the Nokomis, Sask., farmer who is president of the Canadian Canola Growers Association and a director with the CCC.

Over five decades of evolution and development, the CCC has become the overarching organization and forum for the canola industry. It represents farmers, processors, exporters and life science companies.

At times it has been strained by disagreements, but it has never come apart at the seams and many say it seems stronger now than in the past.

Nipawin, Sask., farmer Terry Youzwa, who just completed his term as CCC chair, thinks the success of the organization comes from the tendency of all segments of the canola industry to be willing to talk through issues, at length, rather than beginning with hardened positions.

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together,” said Youzwa, summing up the council attitude.

“It might take a little longer, but if you understand each other’s issues, you’ll find some middle ground and reach some consensus.”

That attitude has allowed the CCC to move forward with complex issues and develop positions acceptable to the entire industry, from farmer to world marketer.

Recent years have seen many issues arise, such as trade disputes with China over blackleg, the evolution of clubroot on the Prairies and complications around genetically modified crop approvals, without experiencing significant farmer-industry animosity.

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At times in the past, disagreements have seemed more intense and could have led to the council’s unravelling, said Dale Adolphe, who was president of the council during some tempestuous years in the 1990s and 2000s.

After evolving from the 1960s-era Rapeseed Association of Canada, which was a non-farmer industry-run organization, and finding a way to incorporate the various prairie checkoff-collecting provincial canola commissions, the canola council ran into internal struggles over a host of evolving issues.

At one point the prairie farmer-run wheat pools walked out of the organization when it spoke out against including canola under the Canadian Wheat Board’s powers.

In another dispute years later, farmers wanted to boost exports of canola seed to Japan, but crushers were incensed at Japanese tariffs on imported canola oil, which kept most canola oil out of that market. Processors were against market development money being spent in Japan.

In both cases, the council found a way to stay together.

After the wheat pools walked out over canola and the CWB, the council decided to stay out of grain marketing policy debates, which allowed the pools to come back.

When crushers and farmers couldn’t agree on how to deal with the Japanese market — engage or boycott — farmer-run organizations funded specific marketing programs outside the canola council.

“The grower commissions established basically their own market development programs,” said Adolphe.

Eventually, Japanese tariffs were reduced and the issue faded, but all the while, the council proceeded with issues that didn’t divide its membership.

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That practice continues today. Consensus is reached around the table on many issues that the council can then take an industry stand on. Contentious issues are talked out, often for months, before industry positions are formulated.

Sometimes no industry position is possible, and separate elements from within the council publicly provide their own perspectives.

That was the case recently with the 2013-14 transportation crisis, Halstead said. Farmer groups were upset early in the crisis with bad rail service, but the rest of the industry seemed to believe the market would sort itself out. Farm groups such as the Canadian Canola Growers Association began lobbying and complaining about the situation without being able to speak for the canola council, but eventually the rest of the industry adopted most of the farmer perspective.

Halstead said he thinks that helped convince the government of the seriousness of the situation and likely wouldn’t have happened if farmers weren’t at the CCC table.

“It started with a farmer push, that’s for sure. We sped up awareness of the issue.”

Related stories in this Special Report:

Culture of respect key for oats

Cereals Canada: Once voice for farm groups?

Consensus critical when determining course of action

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Can farm groups partner with industry yet be independent?