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Farm reporting has its charms

For Lisa Guenther, farm reporting is more than just a job

Back when I was a teenager brimming with that special too-cool-for-you attitude, my friends’ mom tried to impart some basic agricultural knowledge. While chauffeuring us in the summer, she’d quiz us on the crop type in the fields as we whipped by.

My friends, who were growing up on a grain farm, were pretty adept at identifying crops, from what I remember. I was a ranch kid and couldn’t distinguish one green field from another on the fly. Although I was clearly hopeless, she displayed a Yoda-like patience. I doubt my 15-year-old self would have believed I’d someday be a farm reporter.

It turns out I enjoy farm reporting. Well, besides the threat of public gaffes that reveal I still know next to nothing about crops. Agriculture is a very diverse sector, filled with interesting people. I get to talk to farmers and ranchers, scientists, CEOs and commodity traders. I’ve covered stories in all three Prairie provinces and on both coasts. Sometimes information sticks in my brain and I actually learn stuff.

Here are a few of my favourite experiences while working for Grainews and Country Guide.

Chicago

Last winter, I talked to Tom Button, Country Guide editor, into letting me write some sort of story on the Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT).

I loved the city of Chicago. The architecture, the art, the music, the laissez-faire attitude towards jaywalking downtown all warmed my heart.

Chicago also has a long history of agriculture and trading. Farmers and merchants have been trading in the city since the 19th Century. In 1898, the Chicago Butter and Egg Board began offering contracts in ag commodities. It then started offering futures and morphed into the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME).

Today CME Group runs the exchange out of an art deco skyscraper, built in the 1930s, in downtown Chicago. CME also includes markets in New York and Kansas City.

When I tell people I visited Chicago’s trading floor, anyone who’s been to CBOT tells me I should have seen it back-in-the-day.

But early March 2014 turned out to be an interesting time to visit. For one thing, Russia was moving into the Crimea, and so commodity markets were lively. And although the future pits are like ghost towns, traders filled the corn options pit. They waited quietly for the markets to open that morning. When a buzzer droned exactly at 8:30 a.m., they erupted. Shouting. Hands flailing. A small taste of what the trading floor was once like.

It was interesting to talk to CBOT veterans about electronic trading, especially since they were still in the middle of that change. They told me how electronic trading has shifted the culture of CBOT and changed the way people do business. It’s a complex picture.

I was feeling fairly intimidated about visiting CBOT because I know so little about markets. And it seemed like an aggressive environment. But everyone I spoke to that day was respectful and seemed happy to talk about what they did. I really appreciated that.

I don’t cover markets on a regular basis. But visiting Chicago gave me a little better understanding of the markets and sparked an interest in the agriculture exchanges.

Aphanomyces

I’m not sure what this says about me, but discovering that aphanomyces was lurking in my backyard was one of my more exciting professional moments.

Aphanomyces is a pathogen that causes root rot in peas and other legumes. Chickpeas are relatively tolerant, and some fababeans have resistance. Until fairly recently, it’s been largely undiagnosed in Western Canada because fusarium tends to move in after the initial infection.

I pulled in information from a range of sources for this story. There are scientists doing good work to further everyone’s understanding of the disease. But this story really highlighted how important farmers’ field observations are.

In 2012, Bernie McClean, a Medstead-area farmer, realized something was wrong with his peas early enough to get an accurate aphanomyces diagnosis. His neighbour, pedigreed seed grower Ed Seidle, observed the disease’s progression and possible links to its spread that year. Both Bernie and Ed are astute people willing to investigate what’s happening on their farms. I suspect Ed reads scientific journals the way some people read mysteries. When their knowledge is combined with research from universities and government, we can start to see some links to the disease, such as water-logged soil.

Farmers and scientists are still studying this disease, so I’m sure there will be much more to come. There’s a lot of work to do, but hopefully they’ll come up with management practices and resistant varieties to rein in the infection.

Even after writing about aphanomyces last spring, it didn’t occur to me that I should plant my garden peas in new ground. They yellowed part way through the summer. I pulled plants and found they had poor nodulation. My amateur diagnosis was aphanomyces and/or fusarium.

Rotation, rotation, rotation.

Winnipeg in December

Another highlight for me was an icy trip to Winnipeg in December 2014.

I rarely get to visit Winnipeg, and if you’re interested in the agriculture industry, there’s a lot to see there. I went there specifically for Field on Wheels, an annual grain transportation conference. While I was there, I took a day to tour the Canadian Grain Commission (CGC) and the Canadian International Grains Institute (Cigi). Both agencies are in the same mushroom-shaped building in downtown Winnipeg.

pasta noodle testing machine

A machine designed to measure the force needed to bite through a noodle at CGC.
photo: Lisa Guenther

Whether you’re talking about grading grain or baking bread, consistency seems to be the word. Customers don’t want to adjust their equipment or processes because they’re working with huge batches. They need to know that each shipment meets either the regulatory grades or their own specs, and they need to know how each variety and each year’s crop is going to perform.

There are many details that go into ensuring that consistency. For example, on the grading side, the lighting has to be standardized so it doesn’t throw off the colour. Each noodle market demands a certain colour and texture. Crumb structure is important in bread.

The other term that springs to mind is supply chain. What you do on the farm affects the final product, as does the weather, the varieties available to you, and many, many other links between the field and table.

The people at Cigi are finding new uses for Canadian crops. I learned that Canada Western Red Winter (CWRW) is a good fit for steamed breads, popular in Asia. CWRW’s low ash content makes for bright bread, which is what consumers in Asia want. And Cigi staffers are blending pulses into everything from pasta to snack foods. I took home a little package of rotini made with 25 per cent red lentil flour and it passed my taste test.

If you ever have a chance to visit Cigi and CGC, do it. Cigi brings in farmers through their three-day Combine to Customer program over the winter. The program includes everything from variety development to grain grading to flour milling and customer requirements.

Agriculture is a complex industry that’s always changing. As a farmer said to me recently, the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know. That makes it a challenging sector to work in, but also an interesting one.

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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