If you’re still in a post-Christmas fog of too much turkey and stuffing, you may have forgotten that on December 5, the Canola Council of Canada announced some changes to its agronomy program.
First, a quick review. The Canola Council is funded partly by farmers, through the levies that come off your cheques when you sell canola. It’s also funded by the canola industry: buyers, crushers, exporters and chemical companies. The Canola Council focuses on things like market access and increasing demand. And agronomy.
The Canola Council has about a dozen great agronomists on staff. You see them at field days and conferences, and you read their recommendations in regular emails from the Canola Council. You’ve seen many of them quoted here in Grainews, for example in Lee Hart’s story on the cover of this issue where he quotes Council agronomist Autumn Barnes.
On December 5, the Canola Council announced many changes to its strategic priorities. One of these changes will mean less time in the field for their agronomists. The agronomists will focus less on individual field walks and one-on-one farm support, and more on presentations to groups. They won’t administer the Canola Performance Trials, which have been a great source of unbiased information. They’ll help out our provincial governments less with pest and disease surveys. If you were thinking of getting involved in the Council’s Ultimate Canola Challenge, a program focusing on new production practices, that program is over.
I talked to Jim Everson, Canola Council president. He says the Council’s agronomists can make better use of their time working with private agronomists to “amplify” the information they develop, rather than working with farmers one-on-one. He’s probably right. I’m not sure how many farmers phone the Council’s agronomists directly, but I suspect most call a local retail or private agronomist. But still, any day we lose an unbiased source of agronomy information, people whose jobs aren’t directly tied to product sales, is a worrying day.
Charlene Bradley from Stranraer, Sask., is a farmer and a member of SaskCanola’s board of directors. She also represents SaskCanola on the Canola Council’s board. She believes that, as the number of private agronomists has grown across the Prairies, we have a growing need for specialists (like the Canola Council agronomists) to support them. “We believe we’re doing what’s best for the industry,” she said. And, if they identify areas where things need to be changed, she says, they’ll change it. “It’s the first year in. We’ll assess the situation over the first year and see if we’ve got the right mix.”
The agronomy cuts and other changes at the Canola Council will save money. The Canola Council is lowering its budget from $8.7 million in 2017 to $5.2 million in 2019. Here in Saskatchewan, Charlene Bradley said, SaskCanola will contribute $0.15/tonne to the Canola Council, as compared to the $0.23/tonne we contributed in the past. (This contribution comes from the levies farmers pay to provincial canola associations: $0.75/tonne in Saskatchewan; $1/tonne in Manitoba and Alberta).
“Excellent,” the Saskatchewan farmers are thinking. “A 26 per cent discount on my canola levies. Great timing, now that I’m getting about $2/bushel less for my canola than a couple of years ago.”
Not so fast. SaskCanola is keeping the $0.08/tonne. “There are other items that we will be picking up,” Charlene Bradley said. These include more canola promotions, and maybe some support for the Canola Performance Trials.
Let’s say Alice is a Saskatchewan farmer planning to seed 2,000 acres of canola this year. If she grows 40 bushels/acre, she’ll have 0.907 tonnes of canola per acre — 1,814 tonnes. At $0.75/tonne, when she sells that canola, she’ll pay levies of $1,360.50 to SaskCanola. If SaskCanola passed their savings from lower payments to the Canola Council on to Alice, she’d save $0.08/tonne, or $145.12*. Now, if SaskCanola was to mail Alice a refund cheque for $145.12, Alice would probably blow the whole wad (and another $200) at Costco. I’ve seen the goofy things people accidentally buy at Costco, and I’m sure $145.12 would be better spent promoting canola. But it only seems fair to make sure Alice knows these savings will not move down the chain and into her wallet.
SaskCanola tries to keep us posted. But that can’t be easy. In 2018, only 1,159 farmers bothered to vote in the SaskCanola board elections. You’re thinking, “that’s not many.” Guess what? It’s 35 per cent more than voted the last time they held an election. The moral? If you want to know what’s going on in unbiased agronomy, if you want to have a say about it, and if you want your $145 back, you’re going to have to start paying attention to these levy-collecting groups.
*Note: In the original version of this article, I accidentally got the wrong answer converting 40 bushels/acre to bushels/ton (I used the bushels/ha figure, 2.69, which would have been a heck of a crop for Alice). As a result, it appeared that Alice was paying a lot more to SaskCanola than she actually is, and that her refund would have been $432 rather than $145. I apologize for this error, and thank Karla Bergstrom from Alberta Canola for pointing it out. – Leeann