Agricultural processing finds new life on Prairies

Climate change and Chinese trade: are there two more controversial elements on farmers’ minds right now?

Some producers would happily ignore both given that changes to either one won’t be coming through the farmgate anytime soon.

After all, China is not this country’s biggest market and there is record crop movement to ports. Whether or not one believes climate change is as serious as often stated, Western Canada might be poised as a winner overall with longer growing seasons and more moisture, extreme conditions aside.

But just beyond the farmgate, these two issues are on the near horizon. A string of announcements have been made regarding oilseed crushing capacity here on the Prairies. And who could ignore the amount of investment being made in pulse crop processing in Western Canada and northern Great Plains states?

For more than 40 years, prairie agricultural leadership has promoted expanded domestic processing capacity as the way to a healthy future for the agricultural industry.

No longer should we be merely the hewers of wood and drawers of water. Processing raw materials here at home could build the future in a sustainable way.

Delivery on that goal has been difficult. Investment is hard to find for a domestic market as yet unformed. Instead the industry has built a very efficient elevator, rail and port system that has shipped more raw crop off farms faster in the past two years than at any time in history.

The market for meats that aren’t meat have to be fed by protein-rich plant flours based on crops that the Prairies produce in abundance. But where did that global middle-class market come from? It was born from generations of North Americans and Western Europeans being educated about plants’ abilities to provide protein in an environmentally responsible way other than through livestock.

That dovetailed nicely with the climate change message and has been adopted by the societies that are markets for Canadian agricultural production.

Beyond the new pulse processing plants, climate change is also providing more canola crushing capacity.

The climate-conscious market for biodiesel is exploding, making it practical for regional crushing and refining to be done at home. While it might not be good science, it is good money.

China’s rejection of canola seed, but not the oil, in retaliation for Canada’s holding of a Huawei executive, on behalf of American interests, might have done prairie farmers a favour.

One of the companies affected by China’s move is expanding its canola crushing in Saskatchewan. It is speculation, but perhaps the international situation, including the ability to export canola oil to China, and elsewhere, led it in that direction.

It would be a logical outcome of having country elevator capacity for canola collection and the desire to have the related market-share of farm input sales.

New costs, whether from a climate change-driven carbon tax or international trade squabbles, are unfair to the industry because they use producers as leverage.

But in effect, climate change policies and international trade wars may do something that 40 years of speeches and academic papers have largely failed to do. They are building primary agricultural processing on the Canadian prairies.

Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen and Mike Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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