Prairie crop tour information a valuable drop in the bucket

Congratulations to CWB for organizing the recent prairie tour that provided a snapshot of crop conditions and a forecast of yield potential.

We hope it will become an annual event with more participation to cover a wider area.

The tour provided welcome information, bridging the gap between Statistics Canada’s June acreage survey and its first survey-based production forecast that comes out in the second half of August.

As it became clear last year, accurate and unbiased crop production forecasts are vital to the grain handling and transportation sector and crop markets.

The two major railways in particular were unaware of the size of the record crop and unprepared for the demands it would trigger for hopper cars, engines and train crews.

Grain companies’ export sales programs overwhelmed the transportation system, particularly during winter cold snaps, resulting in long ship lineups at port with resulting demurrage, plugged elevators, inadequate sales opportunities for farmers and when sales were made the exceptionally wide basis meant farmers got prices well below the world market level. Tours that generate and make public information on production potential help to ensure last year’s multi-billion dollar failings are not repeated.

The tour was not the last word on this year’s crop. Assessment was difficult because of the wide divergence in weather conditions across the region, with major seeding delays in the eastern half and excess moisture damage.

As CWB weather and crop specialist Bruce Burnett emphasized, it was only a snapshot of production potential. Weather between now and harvest can still have a big impact on final yields.

Such tours are inevitably limited by the fact that they can’t go everywhere. The sampling protocol may be legitimate but the tour participants for the most part are not agrologists and the sampling might be less than perfect. But with a pro like Burnett on hand, a person with decades of crop estimating experience, errors will be spotted.

The data collected provides ground-based evidence to add to the data from satellite maps, anecdotal reports and telephone surveys.

Some farmers complain about production forecasts, saying they don’t reflect the condition on their farms or about the effect on crop prices when good yields are predicted.

But make no mistake, international grain companies with big budgets will gather this data one way or another. If the information is limited to those who pay for it, it creates an unequal market. It is better that the information is made available to all.

Beyond the data collected, the tour provided a valuable educational experience for participants. Many were analysts for financial advisory and trading services, end users, buyers and foreign governments. A fair number were from other countries

They provide data and advice to clients about Canada’s crops but many had not actually seen prairie crops growing in the fields.

It is one thing to collect supply and demand data. It is another thing to see the beauty of flowering canola, flax and peas and waving oceans of wheat and barley.

They experienced the vastness of the Prairies, the distance from ports and processors and the transportation network needed to move it to end users.

Tour organizers arranged for participants to meet local farmers who gave first-hand accounts of the challenges and joys of producing food in this land.

Such education is invaluable in building commercial relationships.

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