Living in the midst of the canola revolution

It must be bizarre to live through a political revolution or a war, where there is widespread chaos, violence and confusion.

For all the drama, fear and excitement, people still have to feed their families, most still have to go to their jobs, generally people keep paying their bills, visiting their grandmothers and attending sporting events. My mother grew up in wartime London, sleeping in a dugout shelter in the backyard, regularly being led out of school by teachers to wait-out bombing or rocket attacks in bomb shelters. And I’ll bet it seemed like a pretty ordinary childhood – to her. For everybody else, the events of the war must have seemed more dramatic, but life still continued on unchanged in most ways, even if the young men mostly marched off and bully beef became the only meat people saw. Cataclysmic events, slowed down enough, can come to seem pretty mundane on a day-to-day basis, especially when they go on for years.

canola production

In a way that’s what we have in the canola industry. Over the course of time, from the 1970s to now, the revolution in that crop and its industry has been truly astounding, with production doubling, tripling, quadrupling and quintupling. It’s gone from being a minor and sensitive crop to the farmer’s moneymaking mainstay and one of the more rugged crops on the field. Crushing plants have proliferated, high stability varieties have carved out specialized niches, and the industry plans – not unreasonably – to add another 40 percent to production by 2025. Yields have doubled since the 1990s for many farmers.

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Yet, for a farmer, the mundane reality of the crop is that each year one or a couple of varieties have to be selected, the fields have to be seeded, the crop has to be managed with whatever tools are available, the crop has to be harvested, then the farmer needs to move it. That pattern never changes. Small-seeming things change every year, but beyond the introduction of herbicide tolerant varieties for the first time, few of the yearly improvements probably seem too stunning. Slowed down to an incremental, year-on-year basis, it might not seem like a revolution at all, just that thing people call “progress.”

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This strange mixture of revolutionary change and mundane daily reality was evident to me at the Canola Council of Canada’s annual convention held last week in San Diego, which I covered. Discussion of bewildering changes sweeping the canola and food industries combined with talk about much more ordinary matters of localized droughts, frosts and regulations. Big picture views mixed with microscopic, ground level focus. In the video below, I speak with CCC president Patti Miller about a new wrinkle in Canada-China trade and about regulatory challenges of the past year, but forgot to ask her about how the industry is doing in reaching its daunting 2025 goals. (That was third on my list.) That seems to me to typify the way we can ignore revolutions when we’re immersed in the day-to-day challenges of living, doing business and keeping up with what’s going on around us.

So I recommend everybody involved with canola sit back occasionally and appreciate the reality that they are living through a technological and scientific revolution of astounding breadth. Agriculture has been revolutionized in the past 20-30 years and canola has been at the forefront of that revolution.  There are times and places where nothing much seems to change, but that’s not the situation in canola now. Take a moment out and enjoy the feeling.

 

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  • Bruce

    25 years ago we grew canola on black summerfallow treated with Treflan. We seeded with an airseeder followed by a harrowpacker bar and hoped for 30 bushels an acre. If we were lucky the price was over $8 and we’d make some money. Now we seed direct into stubble, spray twice for weeds, at least once with fungicide and often add foliar fertilizer and hope for 60+ bushels. It’s the one crop that consistently pays the bills.