Close connection to producers remains important as Western Grains Research Foundation marks 40 years in operation
The Western Grains Research Foundation is turning 40 this year and to mark the occasion, it’s adopting a new corporate logo and launching a new website at wgrf.ca.
The farmer-directed research organization has seen a lot of changes since it was established in 1981, said WGRF executive director Garth Patterson in a recent interview.
But one thing has remained constant.
The WGRF continues to be directed by farmers and it continues to fund agricultural research that’s important to farmers.
That close connection has allowed the WGRF to remain relevant, despite the many changes that have taken place in Western Canada’s agricultural landscape.
“It really started with 12 different farm organizations coming together (in 1981) and saying, ‘we think it’s important that farmers fund agricultural research in Western Canada,’ ” Patterson said.
“That vision and our mission has really remained steadfast over the past 40 years,” he added.
“The vision has always been for profitable and sustainable western Canadian grain farmers… and the mission for the WGRF has really been to direct investments into crop research projects that benefit grain farmers.”
Since its formation 40 years ago, the WGRF has been witness to many changes in the farming sector.
The organization was established with the help of a $9 million fund left over from a federal program known as the Prairie Farm Assistance Act.
Unable to redistribute excess program money back to growers, Agriculture Canada returned the $9 million to farm groups on the understanding that it would be used as seed money for the formation of a producer-directed research organization.
That money formed the basis of what is now the WGRF’s research fund, currently valued at more than $140 million.
Over the years, other funding sources were added.
Beginning in 1995, wheat and barley checkoffs were collected from farmers’ grain cheques and funneled through the WGRF to accommodate further investments in cereal grain research.
Those checkoffs remained under WGRF management until 2017, when the post-CWB Western Canadian Deduction was terminated and provincial wheat and barley commissions in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta took over responsibility for collecting and investing producer checkoffs on wheat and barley sales.
Another key source of WGRF funding comes from Canada’s major railway companies — Canadian Pacific Railway and Canadian National Railway.
Under a complex formula established by the federal government, railway freight revenues derived from moving western Canadian grain to market by rail are capped.
The maximum revenue entitlement, also known as the railway revenue cap, is designed to protect producers against unmanageable freight costs.
If the railway’s grain revenues exceed the allowable revenues under the railway revenue cap formula, excess freight charges are redirected to the WGRF for the benefit of farmers.
Today the WGRF invests about $15 million annually into crop research projects for 15 different crop types.
Existing research commitments are estimated at more than $53 million over the next four years.
The WGRF has committed to maintaining its core research fund at a minimum value of $100 million.
The organization also works with other research organizations to support high-priority research work that benefits primary producers.
A total of 18 farm organizations are represented on the WGRF’s board of directors. Each organization sends one representative to the WGRF board table.
At the same time, the organization has remained largely agnostic on issues related to policy, trade and market development.
“What’s not in (our mandate) is also important,” Patterson said.
“You won’t see the WGRF taking positions on GMOs, or neonics, for example….
“There are enough other organizations out there that are happy to carry that flag so we’ve remained focused (on research).”
Patterson said having a diverse group of grower organizations seated at the WGRF board table, ranging from the National Farmers Union to the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association, has never hindered the organization’s ability to carry out its mandate.
“Those organizations quite often have a lot of different mandates and different political perspectives, but when they come together at our AGM, they’re always focused on WGRF business and on the importance of funding research for western Canadian farmers.”
Currently, priority research areas in the area of variety development include plant genetics, breeding methods, pre-breeding and breeding activities, pathology, crop quality and cultivar trials.
In the area of production, priorities include cropping systems, fertility management, pest management and storage solutions.
The organization is also focused on expanding ag research capacity in Canada and has tripled its annual investments in post-secondary scholarships for western Canadian university students enrolled in ag-related disciplines.
Keith Degenhardt, a grain grower from Hughenden, Alta., who serves as WGRF chair, applauded the organization’s founding members for getting farmers involved from the outset.
“We are the ones who are on the land experiencing the different challenges, so we have a good feel for where the funding should go in research,” said Degenhardt.
“It’s important for farmer-funded research to be farmer directed because it gives you ownership and responsibility to make investments in research that help farmers.”
Since 1981, WGRF has invested more than $200 million on behalf of farmers in more than 550 crop research projects.