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Farm reporting ain’t easy

Reporter's Notebook: More information about hemp to add to what appeared in a previous article, 
and a trip to a conference in Manitoba to learn more about grain transportation

There is a whiff of shame that wafts from journalists after they’ve found out corrections are needed to a published piece. Despite our best intentions, fact-checking processes, and diligent editors, mistakes sometimes slip by us.

Take an article I wrote on growing hemp a few months ago. I spoke to, and referenced material from, several different sources. I checked my work against the information provided by sources. Everyone I spoke to was trying to help rather than mislead me.

Despite this, there is one fact that it is outright wrong, and a couple of others that are a little more nuanced.

I’d interviewed Kevin Friesen of Hemp Genetics International, for the original article, and he contacted me after the article ran regarding the errors. The corrections are as follows:

  1. The article stated farmers should aim for 200 to 250 plants per square metre. But that only applies to hemp grown for fibre. Farmers growing for grain should aim for 75 to 90 plants per metre squared, Friesen wrote.
  2. There is some disagreement on moisture levels for long-term hemp storage, which was reflected in the original article (but perhaps I should have clarified it). Friesen says it must be stored at under 10 per cent moisture — ideally eight to nine per cent. Saskatchewan Agriculture recommends under nine per cent. Manitoba Agriculture puts it at nine to 10 per cent. Alberta Agriculture’s website suggests under 12 per cent. So it’s probably safest to aim for less than 10 per cent moisture.
  3. Not surprisingly, expected yield was the trickiest point. Friesen noted the average yield estimates of 600 to 800 pounds per acre, which I’d sourced from the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance website, were low. He wrote he’d consider anything under 1000 pounds per acre a crop failure. Friesen said he saw yields as high as 2,800 lbs. per acre (including dockage) in 2014.

Seed Manitoba 2014 listed the check variety, CRS1, as averaging 1,389 lbs. per acre in 2013. Yields varied between varieties.

Yield varies, but higher yields are possible. Once again, success likely comes down to getting the right advice for your area, as Friesen stated in the original article.

Leaking out my ears

One of the biggest challenges farm reporters face is covering complex stories that require a ton of time to understand and research. Page space is finite. Deadlines limit the time we can invest in a single story. Every story needs focus.

This is what makes our jobs difficult, but also interesting and even fun. I think.

Grain transportation is a great example of this. The logistics system is complex. There are technical, financial and political aspects to the issue. There’s also the human aspect, the relationships between the different players. A single article only captures a small piece of the puzzle, at best. That’s part of the reason I have a small series planned for Grainews this winter. Hopefully I’ll be able to fit together a few puzzle pieces.

In early December I flew into Winnipeg to attend Fields on Wheels, an annual transportation conference organized by the University of Manitoba’s Transport Institute.

The room was packed with all the players along the supply chain — people from port terminals, railways, government, academia, unions, grain companies, plus a few farmers. And speakers covered everything from interswitching to ocean containers.

By the end of the day, I felt like all that information was leaking out my ears (although I hoped it would leak out my fingers instead, as someone had recently reassured me).

To me, the heart of the issue comes down to what role the railways fill in our society. Dr. Paul Earl of the University of Manitoba gave us a historical overview of economic thought and regulation in the grain and transportation industry.

Canadians have struggled to figure out how railways can best serve society since the first spike was driven. Sir John A. Macdonald’s view was that Canadian Pacific (CP) could go its own way, as its interests and the country’s interests would be identical in the long run, Earl said. Shortly after Macdonald’s statement, the president of CP said the railway’s sole purpose was to make money, Earl added.

Since then, the rail and grain industry has swung to regulation and back again. It’s a little disheartening to think we haven’t come up with an effective long-term solution to grain movement in the 130 years since a CP railroad financier hammered the last spike.

And there’s no single magic bullet, either. Complete deregulation of the rail industry doesn’t work because there’s not enough competition. But over-regulation didn’t work in the 20th century either, according to Earl.

For many years, Earl fought hard to deregulate the grain transportation system, he told delegates. But amongst the people fighting for deregulation, he said he doesn’t “remember one serious conversation about market power, and the dangers that it imposed.”

Earl said he didn’t know whether railways could have, or should have, hauled more grain. But, he said, a commercial system creates commercial decisions. For example, under a commercial system, moving container traffic instead of grain makes perfect sense, he said.

Earl thinks untangling logistics requires balance between open markets and regulation. And, he said, we also need to acknowledge that all corporations are not only economic entities, but institutions that must contribute to society.

Things I think I know right now

Laura Robinson, a freelance investigative journalist, said her understanding of the truth is “as much as I know from the place I now stand.” Her understanding of the truth changes as she finds out more. This makes perfect sense to me.

I don’t know how to clean up this mare’s nest. But here’s what I think I know right now.

A glance at history will tell you that we are unlikely to find permanent solutions to grain movement issues. Perhaps the railways and grain companies will find a way to work together more effectively for a while. Maybe the government will manage to balance public and private interests so precisely that everyone will thrive in this new climate.

But utopia, even if achieved, will never last. We will swing towards too much or not enough regulation. Relationships will sour as new players move in, or old players change. Someone will get greedy, or let ideology triumph over reality.

This doesn’t mean everyone should throw up their hands in disgust and walk away. Sometimes the things worth doing are really difficult. And although railways have a duopoly, we live in a democracy. Over the last few months we’ve seen that even a conservative government is willing impose brute regulations, in some situations.

It’s hard to know how effective expanding interswitching will be in the long run, and the order-in-council had mixed effects. But it does show the government will listen to farmers if they push enough.

In Earl’s opinion, as damaging as the regulatory system was that he fought to dismantle, the polarization between the two sides on that debate was equally damaging. I wonder how much hurt lingers on western Canadian farms from those battles.

Farmers can’t afford to be deeply divided on big issues such as grain transportation. You may be a libertarian, and your neighbour a socialist, but you both need to move grain. It’s time to set aside the hard feelings and “told you sos” and make sure you all have a strong voice in the boardrooms where decisions are made and policies set.

About the author

Field Editor

Lisa Guenther

Lisa Guenther is field editor for Grainews based at Livelong, Sask. You can follow her on Twitter @LtoG.

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