Farmers need first-hand market assessment

It’s possible that Canada has thrown away its grain quality advantage and farmers don’t even know it.

It’s not yet clear that this is happening, but producers need to wake up and demand that all parts of the grain industry ensure Canada’s hard-won reputation is maintained.

Farmers need to know what customers think about the crops they grow and how the middlemen deliver it, free of the filter of non-farmer organizations.

We don’t know if there’s a big problem out there. We don’t actually know much at all about what customers think. That’s a problem all by itself.

Certainly we know that at least one important buyer has found problems with shipments of Canadian grain in the past couple of years, both bulk and containerized.

Derek Sliworsky of Prima Group, a Singaporean milling and processing company, recently urged the Canadian grain trade to look into why some wacky things are happening with export shipments, considering that Canada has always been seen as a high quality supplier.

Some players in the Canadian grain trade were offended that Sliworsky, who grew up on a Manitoba farm and formerly represented CWB in Japan, spoke his concerns out loud in a public gathering during the Cereals North America conference.

However, some farmer representatives with whom I’ve spoken have praised his willingness to give the Canadian grain trade, of which he’s a proud proponent, a wake-up call regarding something he sees as serious.

As a journalist, I favour openness and public discussion of developing issues. I think that’s just as important for the farmer.

It’s hard to know if anyone else is experiencing the problems seen by Prima.

However, somebody should be doing a forensic audit of the situation today and taking on the sort of ongoing, constant customer contact that the CWB used to perform.

We have an export inspections system run by the Canadian Grain Commission, but that only makes sure loads meet the minimum specifications. It’s not a customer satisfaction service.

The Canadian International Grains Institute does a great job of dealing with customers on technical issues, but it isn’t doing the sort of sales follow-ups that are needed.

Somebody needs to see that all of farmers’ crucial customers are happy, and this somebody should be a farmer-based organization.

Farmers have the most to lose here.

The grain companies have their own private interests at heart, as they should have. They are answerable to shareholders, not farmers.

Governments and public agencies are officially answerable to the public, but often care more about internal priorities and protecting their institutional interests.

Farmers are the ones who get the money that’s left over after all the middlemen take their cuts, so they’re the ones who need to know what’s going on with their grain.

Could this be done by the new barley and wheat commissions being set up on the Prairies? Should it be done by general farm groups like Keystone Agricultural Producers? I leave that to wiser minds to determine.

But one thing I’m sure of is that it should be done by the farmers who grow the grain and have the most to lose if something goes awry.

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