Can farm groups partner with industry yet be independent?

Farmers can work closely with industry and maintain a strong, independent voice, say farm leaders within the oat and canola industries.

Western Canada’s nascent wheat grower organizations are split on how and whether to work with processors, marketers and other parts of their crop’s value chain.

However, the oat and canola industries say they are examples of how farmers can work with industry.

“Producers have to get past the point of thinking that these guys (in industry) are making money off them,” said Bill Wilton, one of the founders of the Prairie Oat Growers Association.

“That’s the nature of business.”

Brett Halstead, president of the Canadian Canola Growers Association and a member of the Canola Council of Canada board, said canola growers regularly remind the industry that it needs farmer support.

“They know that if farmers aren’t doing well (with canola), they’ll grow something else, or go to cattle or elk or something,” said Halstead.

That’s been the case with the canola council’s goal of producing 26 million tonnes of canola by 2025. In both years of farmer Terry Youzwa’s recently concluded term as canola council chair, he regularly reminded the industry that it needed to make the crop attractive to farmers or its goals would never be reached.

“It starts with enticing growers to plant the crop,” Youzwa said in March during his address to the canola council annual meeting.

On a recent early May morning as he took a break from seeding as a light rain fell on his farm near Nipawin, Sask., he noted that farmers have more cash clout than many realize, which makes their support a hot commodity.

“They’re much more well-funded than they were (in previous decades),” said Youzwa of checkoff-funded farm organizations.

“They are a source of capital. They have capital to invest … and there’s a higher level of respect because they can contribute. They are sought after.”

Farmer-controlled commodity organizations have become more important as government funding of research and market development has lessened, say farmers involved in the canola and oat industries. Research is now a high-tech, expensive business and often relies on multiple sources of cash.

Check-off money gives farmers leverage when it comes to picking industry priorities.

That’s why Bob Anderson, a longtime oat grower, oat promoter and POGA representative with the Western Grains Research Foundation, wants to see prairie wheat organizations pool their dollars the same way oat organizations have always done.

“They should be able to put that together and make the best use of farmers’ money,” said Anderson.

“It would be in their best interests to have some coming together because what I don’t want to see is three separate research silos across the West to do some serious research. We’re embarking on some very expensive (research) and a changing world in crop development, and I would not want to see farmer check-off money diluted.”

The elimination of the Canadian Wheat Board’s marketing monopoly created the basis for the new checkoff-driven commissions.

Oat growers were always focused on creating a cross-prairie organization and finding creative ways around the provincially based structures with which they had to deal.

However, the wheat commissions are politically split between a right-of-centre approach in Alberta, a left-of-centre approach in Saskatchewan and a mixed approach in Manitoba.

Whether they can ever form a united front such as POGA, let alone a farmer-industry combination such as the canola council, is a big question mark.

Wilton has resisted pressure for all cereal grain organizations, including oats, to merge into a cereals council, fearing oats would be drowned out by the interests of wheat. However, he said it’s vital for farmers to find a way to maximize their ability to promote the overall industry while maintaining their ability to forcefully advocate for farmer interests.

It’s a tough balance, but can be achieved, as oats and canola have demonstrated.

“We’re here to do the best we can for our constituents,” said Wilton.

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

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

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