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A last reflection on the Golden Gate

The morning after the Canola Council of Canada convention wrapped up in San Francisco last week, I wandered down to the waterfront, went to the end of a wharf, took this photo and reflected on canola, Canada and prairie farming.

Sunrise over Golden GateActually, I’m lying. I took this pic in the hours before the convention began, but it would be a better story if what I said above was true, wouldn’t it? So let’s pretend . . .

As as I watched the sun rise in the haze behind the Golden Gate bridge, (pretend that’s a picture of the Golden Gate and not the Bay bridge) and the salty smell of the sea and the sound of the surf slapping against the poles of the pier bathed my senses, I wondered why I was feeling so optimistic about the future of farming. After all, for the past two days, I had heard about canola being blocked from China, canola meal from many plants being banned from the United States, about canola being excluded from U.S. biodiesel approvals, and about huge new supplies of palm oil coming towards the market.

And, as canola council chair Richard Wansbutter of Viterra said, the winter in the overall grain industry has seemed depressing, with flax beset by the Triffid issue, ochratoxin messing up grain shipments, and all the canola problems coming together to create an incredible mess of snarls. Yet, he said, when he deals with the canola industry he feels incredibly optimistic and hopeful about the future.

And that’s, I suppose, exactly what I was feeling. Canola still seems the golden child of prairie farming, and every year at this convention some new and exciting developments seem to be occurring, and year after year the industry grows, matures, and also revolutionizes how it does business. There’s so much more of a canola industry now than there was 15 years ago, when I started this job with the Western Producer, and amid all the struggles with cattle and hogs, the continuing depression in wheat and grains, and general farm income troubles, canola still seems to offer a profitable way forward.

The huge yield gains of hybrids and genetic modification, the innovative products like Nexera canola, the general bounding development of canola on all fronts just seems to suggest that with at least one large acreage crop, prairie farmers have a fighting chance.

The situation couldn’t be more contrasting with wheat and barley, the prairies’ other mega-crops. In the wheat world now, everything seems dull and dreary and depressing. The optimistic and excited tone of the canola council convention was a marked contrast with GrainWorld, the Canadian Wheat Board’s market outlook conference in February. I don’t blame the wheat board for that situation, as much as anti-boardians would like to blame wheat’s woes on the marketing monopoly. Board market analyst David Boyes made a special point at GrainWorld of pointing out wheat’s long term competitive disadvantage to corn and soybeans as a cause of concern for the industry. And I know from doing work on wheat in the U.S. last summer that the feeling around wheat in the non-board U.S. is just as or more depressing, since they grow lower grades and have fewer premium classes of the crop. Wheat’s just becoming a crappier commodity to grow year by year as corn, soybeans and – yes – canola see bounding gains in yield and product development and wheat does not.

At the canola convention, British analyst David Jackson gave a positive long-term spin to vegetable oils, and a long-term negative to grains: as people around the world get richer and spend more on food, they don’t eat more grains, and any marginal grain consumption increases are met by marginal yield gains. Oil crops, on the other hand, see their demand increase at four times the rate of cereals, as people eat more oil and more meat (fed by oilseed meal) as they get wealthier.

So this year, while farmers feel distressed planting millions of acres to wheat that they doubt will bring a profit, they can at least feel good that their other big crop has a good shot at bringing in some profits. And while canola, like wheat, faces many challenges now and into the future, canola at least is proving itself to be able to radically improve itself and stay ahead of the negatives and put more money in farmers’ pockets.

So as the sun rose over San Francisco and I readied to head to the airport and come back home to the prairies, I felt like I was returning to a place with a future, and an industry with realistic hopes of long term sustainability and success. So I was able to bid the Golden Gate farewell without too much sadness in my soul.

Even if the scene I just described didn’t really happen, and it wasn’t even the Golden Gate bridge I was looking at, it felt like it did.

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