Sometimes news appears when you’re not ready for it

News is like good fortune or a new pandemic disease. You never know when it’s going to break out and you probably won’t be prepared for it when it does.

That’s how it was for me the other day while I was doing a routine interview with some international marketers of Canadian wheat and the interview went in a radically different direction from what I had expected. Instead of a gentle, nuanced discussion about a marketer trying to incrementally expand markets for Canadian grain in West Africa, it became the situation of a significant, high-value marketer of Canadian grain feeling upset, aggrieved and betrayed by an unprecedented decline in Canadian grain quality being delivered to customers like them.

I was a bewildered by this because this was happening on a Monday and I had been working since 4 a.m. on deadline stories (we go to press on Mondays and this interview happened at about noon). My head was still deeply inside three or four other stories I had been working on. As soon as I heard what they were saying, I knew it was of huge importance to Western Canadian farmers. However, I felt ill-equipped to perform an incisive interview on a complex, contentious and divisive issue. Fortunately the gentlemen involved were erudite, frank and patient as we discussed the issue and I ended with a well-rounded sense of their situation and perspective during our 25 minute talk.

(This issue was not entirely new, (see links below, ed) which made it more newsy to me. Almost exactly the same complaints were voiced last spring at the Cereals North America conference by a Singaporean importer. Some farmers and grain industry players at the time tried to minimize and dismiss the complaints, while others suggested any problems had already been dealt with. Hearing such a strong echo of that year-old situation was jarring.)

As soon as the interview was concluded I had a professional problem: Do I try to rush this into print immediately, in the flurry of that issue’s imminent deadline, submitting a story containing only the customers’  complaints, or do I hold it for the next issue and give myself adequate time to contact people who could respond to their complaints. Fortunately, from what I could tell, I was the the only journalist who had spoken to them, so I didn’t need to rush the story forward that very day in order to match any competitors. (This is an unfortunate but inevitable reality of journalism. Fear of being “beaten” on a story causes a lot of stories to appear prematurely.)

That gave the opportunity to speak to a number of people I thought should have the ability to respond, which was the Canadian International Grains Institute, the Western Grain Elevator Association, the Canadian Grain Commission and Cereals Canada. All gave me valuable perspective and insight on the situation from the other side of the grain supply pipeline, from the farm to the elevator to the port and onto the ship. There have been big challenges to the industry in the few years since the end of the Canadian Wheat Board’s monopoly, both in terms of restructuring Canada’s overseas grain marketing and in coping with first a logistics crisis and then terrible weather, and these bodies have been immersed in dealing with those challenges.

It also gave me time to think and interview my way down to what I think is the underlying issue with this situation. As I thought back to last year’s complaints and these near-identical complaints, and the responses of Canadian grain people, an obvious question popped into my mind: In the many efforts made by a multitude of industry and farmer organizations to reassure overseas customers that Canada would still be a source of high-quality and world’s-best wheat regardless of the ending of CWB monopoly, had the industry forgotten to spell out clearly enough to marketers and buyers that some things had fundamentally changed too and they couldn’t rely on some of their old CWB-era assumptions?

Since this was my question and I was the one throwing it into the discussion, I decided to break that part of the story out into a column. That way I could dispense with the reportorial conceit of having a bunch of people respond to a question being posed by . . . . Hopefully you get my point here. I think it’s an issue and that’s why I was asking industry players to respond to it. Nobody disagreed that it was probably a gap that had appeared in the post CWB world that nobody had really recognized.

I’m hoping we produced a good package here on a critical issue for Canadian farmers. We have the customer concerns. We have the industry response. I have a column flagging an underlying issue I see. With any luck, it’ll provide the grounds for constructive discussion and help farmers come to terms with an issue they might not have realized has arisen.

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