If you want to know about Canadian agriculture you ask a farmer. That was the simple reality that farmers who accompanied industry experts on the 2016 Canadian Wheat New Crop Missions learned fast.
“Meeting a producer, and seeing and hearing how the wheat they are buying is grown, stored and delivered are essential parts of our customers’ need for information in a competitive global marketplace — one where consumers are increasingly demanding more information about where their food comes from,” said Alberta farmer, Kevin Bender in a blog post he wrote for the Alberta Wheat Commission’s (AWC) website. Bender, who is also Vice-Chair of AWC, attended the South Asia/Mid-East/West Africa leg of the new crop missions last December, visiting the Philippines, Indonesia, the United Arab Emirates and Nigeria.
Cereals Canada led the crop missions, which included stakeholders from all segments of the Canadian wheat industry — including farmers, exporters, the Canadian International Grains Institute (Cigi) and the Canadian Grain Commission (CGC). The missions ran for seven weeks in total, kicking off with sessions for Canadian millers, then visiting customers in 17 different countries in Asia, Latin America, Europe, North Africa and West Africa.
The new crop missions are important for a number of reasons says Cam Dahl, President of Cereals Canada. “We are providing customer support for our long-time customers in their decision to purchase Canadian wheat,” he says. “It’s important to have exporters there to answer questions around logistics and supply. Farmers get questions on how they make their cropping decisions and why they’re choosing to grow the crops they grow. Increasingly, we’re getting questions around how they make decisions around pesticide use and what they’re doing to ensure that we’re meeting international Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs), so the ‘team’ part of Team Canada is really important.”
Blown away by the value
Saskatchewan farmer, Lane Stockbrugger visited Algeria, England, Italy and Morocco as part of the new crop missions and he admits that after he attended a couple of the sessions, he did a “complete 180” in his thinking about whether it was valuable to have all these different industry players along on the missions.
“I was blown away by the value that was there. During the sessions often one of us would get a question and there would be two or three of who would answer it, because we each have a different perspective. So, if the question was to the exporter, I would also explain what it looks like to me as a farmer before my grain gets to the export market, and the CGC would talk about how it related from a grading perspective. The value was in having all of those pieces of the value chain truly working together, and it would be hard to send one or two people to represent all of us, and really have a well rounded view or perspective.”
The questions varied depending on the country they visited, but they ran the whole gamut — everything from basic production questions about the pH of Canadian soils, and pre-harvest herbicide applications, to grading and DON (vomitoxin) levels in wheat. Some of them surprised Stockbrugger.
“I was surprised how intrigued they were when I talked about things like maintaining the temperature sensors that we have on all of our grain bins,” says Stockbrugger. “They assumed that once we harvest the crop it immediately goes off to export. I had to explain to them that there are times when our grain will sit in bins for upwards of a year at a time, and we have to make sure that we protect that investment, just as we protected it at its seedling stages.”
Stockbrugger also found he had often to explain how Canadian crop rotations work. “When I first talked about crop rotation they didn’t quite understand what I was getting at, so I explained that on our farm would have five different crops that we plants in any given year, and all of those crops have different acreage amounts based on short term marketability and long-term decisions, and they hadn’t thought about that. In places like Algeria or Morocco they would go from wheat to wheat to wheat, so our system was totally different to theirs and they were curious about that.”
Curious about Prairie agriculture
Bender says he realized how important it was for a producer to be on the missions when he saw how intently focused the attendees were when he showed them pictures of his family and farm, some of the machinery he uses, a GPS map from his combine and snow. “They were interested to see an aeration fan and floor, and hear about how below zero temperatures can be effective in preserving and maintaining wheat quality. They heard how crop rotations benefit both soil and wheat quality along with minimizing levels of pathogens such as DON and ergot,” says Bender.
“They saw a picture of my soil probe and heard about soil tests that guide us in applying only the right nutrients and the right amount of nutrients to grow an optimal and high-quality wheat crop. They heard about reduced tillage and direct seeding that has resulted in significantly less soil erosion from both water and wind along with increased soil organic matter. Then they asked an array of questions such as, ‘What is the capacity of a 13-inch auger?’ ‘What percentage of my crops are wheat?’ ‘How do I decide which variety to plant and do I bin different varieties of the same class of wheat separately and sell them as such?’”
The team saw a lot of different production systems as they passed through the various countries, and Stockbrugger raised a few eyebrows in some countries when he explained that he and his brother managed their entire 4,000 acre farm with only one or two part time employees. “They were blown away by that,” he says. “In Algeria, for example, we saw instances where on a couple of acres there were more than 10 employees working. It was so interesting to see the differences between our agriculture and theirs.”
Connecting to customers
Stockbrugger says the crop missions were a great experience and he wishes more Canadian farmers had the opportunity to see where their grain ends up and understand the questions that people who use Canadian grain have.
“As farmers we often produce the crop and ship it to the elevator and its gone, so to have the ability to see it in action, to be at the pasta and the couscous factory and see our durum wheat come right off in the form of a packaged product was pretty neat,” says Stockbrugger. “I think sometimes as farmers we need to do more to understand where our production goes and how it’s being used. These missions are a great opportunity to do that.”
The crop missions are vital from a marketing perspective, to keep Canadian wheat front and centre and maintain its reputation as a quality product. “We can’t take these markets for granted,” says Stockbrugger. “There is competition nipping at our heels. There is other good quality wheat out there. We need to be at the forefront and establish those contact points where our customers can reach out to us and ask questions, and be able to sit down with them and understand the challenges they have with our product, and bring that first-hand knowledge back to share with the industry.”
Bringing feedback from international customers back to the Canadian value chain is another vital aspect of the new crop missions. “We are ensuring that the messages from customers are communicated to farmers and to the Canadian research community,” says Dahl.
“That’s partially done through a research priority setting process that’s chaired by Cereals Canada and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada with the goal of setting national research priorities that are based on not necessarily what we did 10 years ago, but what our customers are going to be demanding in the future. Connecting with people who are actually selling grain on a day-to-day basis and linking that back to our research priorities is critically important.”
Good and bad news
At every location, says Stockbrugger, people were well aware of the wet conditions farmers had dealt with over last summer, and the early October snowfall across the Prairies.
Nobody tried to hide the fact that the cool, wet summer experienced by much of the Prairies was an ideal environment for the growth of fusarium fungi. Although this year fusarium has had minimal effect on the milling, baking, and pasta and noodle-making properties of wheat and durum, it also produces the mycotoxin DON (deoxynivalenol). Most markets have strict limits on DON because of food safety concerns.
Farmers also had the opportunity to speak about how they are applying good business practices, and adopting technology to reduce energy consumption, sequester carbon, reduce erosion and improve soil health, to ensure they remain competitive, productive and sustainable. “As a farmer, I was honoured to represent western Canadian producers, and our role is ever important on these missions, to tell our story,” says Stockbrugger. “It was the opportunity to speak about our independent approach to running our businesses and how we make decisions on our farms that are in the interest of the family business, for today and looking toward the future. I spoke of our focus on technological advancements to help farmers in Canada be as productive as possible while ensuring that we are growing crops in a sustainable manner.”
Keep it clean
“Questions about glyphosate and how we use it on the farm were valuable to hear and even more importantly to have the ability to respond firsthand and explain how we use herbicides, pesticides and fungicides to produce the quality product customers have come to expect from Canada,” says Stockbrugger. “These discussions during the missions help build new business relationships and strengthen existing ones, which is ever important if we intend to maintain and grow our position in these markets.”
One message driven home to Stockbrugger and other farmers on the crop missions is just how credible farmers are in the eyes of not just others in the industry, but the public as well. A lot of responsibility comes along with that, and it’s vitally important to be transparent and available to answer questions, and not take for granted the trust in Canadian grain production and quality that has taken many years to earn.
“What we do as farmers makes a difference, but we can’t rest on our laurels in this competitive landscape,” says Stockbrugger. “We have to be out there telling our story.”