No signs of crisis evident at canola council meetings

MONTREAL — The Canola Council of Canada has emerged from its near-death experience with a renewed sense of vigour and purpose.

Rather than flying apart, it appears to have re-bonded its relationships and is being forged closer together in the face of common struggles with issues like access to China and neonicotinoids.

“I think it’s very important that we have strong industry associations. They are advocates for our industry,” said Kyle Jeworski, president and chief executive officer of Viterra, in a keynote address to the inaugural Canadian Crops Convention.

Just the day before he spoke on March 6, news broke that Richardson International had lost its ability to export canola to China.

“I think when we look at disruptions like that, it’s critically important that we have strong industry (associations.) We’ve got a collective voice.”

Jeworski’s speech and endorsement were notable in light of the restructuring and crisis from which Canola Council of Canada has recently emerged. In early 2018, Richardson announced it was ending its role within the council, blowing a hole not only in the council’s funding, but also potentially in the council’s ability to function as a common table at which all major components of the industry sit.

Viterra was rumoured to be mulling withdrawal, and other members were said to be in a grouchy mood. Grain companies were paying more and a higher proportion of the council’s budget as canola production soared.

The council underwent a major downsizing, announced in December 2018, slashing its budget by about 40 percent and reducing all its remaining members’ dues, while eliminating some of its activities and functions.

But in Montreal, there were no obvious signs of a continuing crisis. In casual conversations, farmers, agronomists, processors, exporters and other members of the industry seemed happy with the reformed CCC. New committees were tackling chronic issues like blackleg and clubroot, while the council’s professional staff were tackling regulatory and market access issues that are beyond the ability of most smaller organizations and lone companies to handle.

As David Dzisiak ended his long-time involvement as chair of the council, he told reporters that the organization’s depth and competence were not diminished and was more important than ever, especially in light of the China situation.

“We’ve got terrific staff. We’ve got networks into government and all the key departments there. We’ve got a lot of support at the ministerial level,” said Dzisiak.

At the conference not only did Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland appear for an extended public discussion with canola council president Jim Everson, but newly minted Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau made the event her first public appearance in the role.

The elephant-not-in-the-room was Richardson, a fact quietly noted by numerous attendees. The company has chosen to not re-join the organization, although it is still technically a member.

That did not prevent council members from proclaiming that Richardson’s China problem affected them all, and they would work to help resolve it.

“This is an industry issue. It’s more than just Richardson,” said Dzisiak.

Added Jeworski: “You need a strong industry voice, I think, to deal with issues like that. Individual-companies-to-government, I think, is ineffective.”

Different crop-based industries are organized in different ways. Canola’s rise as a newly created crop in the 1970s and 1980s brought with it the erection of an industry association that combines all the major elements of production and distribution, from farmers to grain companies to processors to exporters to product marketers.

“Canola is really unique that way…. Whoever set that up in the beginning had great foresight,” said Dzisiak.

“Everybody comes in the room. They put their canola council hat on. There’s really good, open discussion and frank discussion.”

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