Commodity organizations must put farmers first

Canadian cereal producers need national organizations to develop research funding and market development systems to advance their crops and maximize producer profits.

The impetus for this is the removal of the CWB’s single desk, which had acted as an umbrella co-ordinator for wheat and barley, collecting farmer checkoffs, allocating research money and supporting market development through its own efforts and support of the Canadian International Grains Institute.

Farm groups, commodity associations and agribusiness — in other words, those involved in the value chain from field to plate — are working to create organizations that will take up these roles.

However, they have yet to develop a consensus about a guiding vision.

For example, a working group spearheaded by farmers proposes a national barley council with representation from industry stakeholders, including growers, processors, grain handlers and livestock feeders.

But the Western Grain Elevators Association, which represents major grain companies, advances an alternative vision, a national cereals council overseeing development of wheat, barley, oats and rye.

Membership would be similar to that proposed by the barley group but would also include life sciences companies.

The WGEA says its structure would give each crop its due but also have an efficient administrative structure and be able to effectively address issues that are common to all cereals.

The barley council proponents prefer a more focused approach to concentrate on solving the crop’s gradual decline. It would have a targeted membership and be responsible to that group in tracking income and expenditure.

It would provide greater assurance that check-off money collected for a specific commodity is actually spent to advance that commodity.

Each cereal crop faces challenges.

Breeding has not kept up with the yield advances seen in crops such as corn.

Farmers who grow cereals have seen their return per acre lag other crops.

Canadian wheat and barley producers face strong new competition from farmers in other countries, particularly those in the Black Sea region.

Oat farmers are struggling to maintain their traditional market among horse owners.

Many of these farmers also grow canola and pulse crops and have seen the benefits provided by the Canola Council of Canada and Pulse Canada.

Both organizations have had remarkable success advancing the interests of their crops.

There are differences. Pulse Canada oversees development and market promotion of several crops. It has a trade association representative on its board — the Canadian Special Crops Association — but it is very much a farmer-driven organization.

The canola council focuses only on canola. Its board reflects the whole value chain with representation from crushers, exporters, grain handlers, life science companies and growers, although growers are in the minority.

Each of these organizational templates has its strengths and weaknesses.

As the cereals sector works out these competing visions, all players should recognize the key position of farmers.

The term value chain implies a series of links of equal importance, each sharing in the risks and rewards.

However, the organizers of these new structures should also see them as houses resting upon a foundation: farmers.

If it is not profitable for farmers to grow the crop, there is no grain to process or export and no fields to fertilize or spray.

Farmer interests must be protected so they can be solid and sustainable to support the rest of the structure.

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