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Canadian Wheat Board is missed

Changes to Canadian grading and specification systems causing concerns

Oh, boy… the Canadian Wheat Board may be coming back!

Not likely, I am just being an alarmist, but it was interesting to read in our sister pub — the Western Seducer — where some bread manufacturers are mourning the loss of some features the CWB offered.

I haven’t heard too many complaints about the absence of the wheat price pooling and the wheat buying monopoly, but Canada Bread, which buys about 300,000 tonnes of Canadian wheat each year, is one of the companies complaining that since the CWB was dismantled, sourcing consistent quality of wheat has been going down hill.

Canada Bread says, with total control of stored milling wheat, the CWB could look across the system and find sufficient wheat with the proper specifications to meet a bread maker’s needs. Now, that supply of high-quality wheat is a bit more hit and miss, and private grain companies don’t have the pick of the crop, so to speak.

That story isn’t brand new however, as the Canadian Grain Commission — a watch dog of grain quality standards — started a process about 18 months ago to transfer some the more borderline Canadian Western Red Spring wheat varieties — the milling wheat class — to a new class to be known as Canada Northern Hard Red wheat class. The ones being reclassified are varieties more suitable for production of noodles and flat breads where gluten strength isn’t an issue.

The CGC says customers around the world — not just Canada Bread — were complaining they weren’t getting the consistent quality — high gluten strength — of Canadian wheat they had come to expect. Some of the 29 CWRS varieties targeted for reclassification were very popular among growers, but even at the time of variety registration they were borderline for the CWRS class. Throw in some challenging growing seasons and the quality of some varieties really went down the tube even though they were still marketed as CWRS.

The re-classification hasn’t been a totally positive move, especially among growers who really liked the agronomics of some of these red-circled varieties — some of the most popular were Lillian, Park, Katepwa, Unity and Harvest. But the reclassification, which comes into effect in August 2018, is a necessary move, to protect the quality and reputation of Canadian wheat.

While it is important to weed out the lower quality varieties from the CWRS class, some farmers say, never mind the Canadian Wheat Board, the Can­adian grain industry could live without the Canadian Grain Commission too.

Southern Alberta farmer, Steve Vandervalk, at Fort Macleod, describes the whole wheat classification system as “garbage.”

“What we really should be doing is selling wheat based on specification and not by class,” says Vandervalk, a former president of both the Western Canadian Wheat Growers and Grain Growers of Canada.

“Here we are in 2016 and we’re still using a visual inspection to classify grain? There is something wrong with that. We need to do away with the whole classification system and just sell according to actual specifications — regardless of what the crop looks like or the variety. If it meets a customer’s specifications, then we make a sale.”

Vandervalk says there are plenty of examples were farmers have sold wheat to a grain company for $5 per bushel, as an example, because that wheat was a certain variety and fell into a specific class, and then the grain company sells that grain into a U.S. or other off-shore market for $12 a bushel because it met the specifications for a particular end use. “This whole classification system has cost farmers thousands of dollars,” he says.

Much like the U.S. system, Vander­valk, says all grain should be tested in a lab to determine quality specifications and then it should be sold based on those specifications, regardless of variety or class or colour. If it is what a customer wants then they’ll pay for it.

He also says Canada needs to make changes to the grading system it applies to U.S. wheat being brought into Canada. Right now all U.S. wheat is automatically graded as feed wheat regardless of quality. It might be used for something else, but it is imported as feed wheat. So far the U.S. hasn’t made it an issue, but Vandervalk says it could one day become a real trade irritant.

He questions whether there is even a need for the CGC — farmers should be able to grow, obtain specifications and market their wheat without the need for a “classification” label.

Probably all good points to consider, but I think we need to slow down with this whole change thing. First the Canadian Wheat Board is gone, then the federal government goes Liberal, Alberta goes NDP, Manitoba goes Conservative, sell grain according to specification, treat U.S. wheat growers with respect… What’s next? Buying a timeshare is really a good investment, the senate is a vital component of the Canadian government, or women should be allowed to vote and hold office? OK, now I am starting to talk crazy.

About the author

Field Editor

Lee Hart is editor of Cattleman’s Corner based in Calgary.

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