Can farmers get inside a big tent with grain companies, processors and marketers without losing their ability to stick up for themselves?
By today’s accounts, Western Canada’s oat growers felt small, poor and disconnected when they walked into the post-Canadian Wheat Board world 23 years ago.
In 1992, federal wheat board minister Charlie Mayer placed the crop outside the CWB’s marketing control. Back then, oat growers knew little about the companies that processed their crop, the products it was made into and which consumers bought it and why.
As well, they also had trouble figuring out how a few thousand scattered farmers could get a comfy seat at the oat industry table.
“It was very un-rich at the beginning,” long-time oat grower Bob Anderson of Winnipeg said while recalling the formative days of the Prairie Oats Growers Association.
Fast-forward two decades and prairie oats growers are an effective, prairie-wide organization.
Its meetings bring in representatives from all of North America’s millers, senior managers of General Mills and Pepsico’s Quaker Oats, virtually all the active oat breeders in Canada and anyone else interested in being connected to the North American oat industry.
The Prairie Oat Growers Association has managed to make itself the go-to organization when it comes to discussing industry issues, which it thinks provides an example to provincial wheat organizations now trying to find ways to work together with private industry.
Long-time active members take pride in having created a farmer-controlled organization that isn’t afraid to speak up for producers while managing to get along with other interests.
“The biggest single thing is respect,” said Bill Wilton, an organizer from the beginning and a past-president of POGA.
“Respectful discussions are what is required.”
The lessons for wheat growers come from lots of learning, which was often painful as POGA tried to build itself from scratch.
Funding was lean in the early years because they were unable to set up a prairie-wide checkoff and needed to organize separate provincial organizations in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, collect provincial checkoffs and channel the money to POGA.
The organization was saved in those early years by money and assistance from some of the major non-farmer players in the oats industry, such as Quaker Oats.
“Without the support of the trade, there would not have been a Prairie Oat Growers,” said Wilton.
He thinks corporate interests were willing to step in because they realized that maintaining oat acreage was a problem. The crop was disappearing in the United States, and there was a chance the industry could lose easy access to good Canadian oats.
So the interests of processors worked well with POGA’s desire to make the crop attractive enough to prairie farmers that it would remain a significant part of their crop rotations.
Unlike wheat, which is a gigantic worldwide crop with good markets, and canola, which is a fast-rising Cinderella crop, oats was a dangerous combination of old, small and grown only in small pockets. Efforts to keep its acreage steady united farmers, processors, marketers and breeders.
This led to a general willingness to compromise, between farmers from across the Prairies, and with millers and processors.
“Maybe we all take a little water with our wine from time-to-time,” said Anderson.
“But it has worked up until now.… We’ve worked with all sectors of the industry, and we all seem to get along and each does our own part for the betterment of the whole industry because farmers and industry both have to be comfortable or the whole thing isn’t going to work.”
Collegial friction can sometimes be seen at the POGA annual meeting, held every December.
Two years ago, one giant miller chided POGA for spending too much time and effort on rebuilding the U.S. horse feed market. It said, resources would be better spent boosting the nutritional quality of oats for human food products.
However, POGA’s leaders stuck to their guns and have continued their U.S. horse feed market efforts. The millers have not backed away from working with POGA.
“Even when they’ve had differences, they’ve found other areas to work together in,” said Randy Strychar, publisher of the Oatinformation newsletter and organizer of the U.S. horse feed campaign.
“It’s like a family. They’re going to have differences, but they function quite well.”
Another divide between POGA’s farmer members and some of the industry came with the 2013-14 transportation crisis. POGA complained about bad rail service and the poor treatment of southward-bound oat shipments, while other elements of the industry wanted POGA to stay silent.
“We got past that,” said Wilton.
“Had a frank discussion about it. Everybody understood where everybody was coming from.”
Wilton credits POGA with getting southbound rail flow included in Canadian Transportation Agency monitoring.
From the beginning, oat growers didn’t want provincial-based organizations to dominate, and Wilton thinks the approach has paid off with research money for variety development. Breaking POGA’s research money into three pieces with different priorities could have complicated and weakened the abilities of Canada’s few oat breeders.
Anderson, who represents oats on the Western Grains Research Foundation board, agrees with that approach and urges wheat organizations to do the same thing.
“They should be able to put that together and make the best use of farmers’ money,” said Anderson.
Wilton said being prairie-wide has been POGA’s best asset, whether it’s with pooled research money or being able to lobby industry or government. It’s something wheat organizations need to realize, he added.
“They need to remember that they represent the wheat producers in their individual provinces, but by coming together as one overarching group for all the wheat and durum producers in Western Canada, that they can apply tremendous leverage.”
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