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Editor’s Column: Is it time to get together?

I’ve written in this space several times about the newly formed farm commodity groups that collect levies from us to co-ordinate research and marketing for Prairie crops. We pay levies to organizations for each crop we grow, from canary seed to canola. If this was Iowa and we grew only corn and soybeans, things would be simple. But with pulses, canola, wheat, barley, oats and sunflowers in the mix, things can get complicated, with several different provincial organizations in all three Prairie provinces.

In Manitoba, the board members of these commodity groups are taking some steps that might lead to a simpler system.

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At this year’s annual CropConnect conference, farmer and consultant Kelly Dobson was given the mic at a keynote session to talk about the potential for merging the Manitoba commodity organizations.

Right now, the process is still at the consulting stage. Manitoba’s commodity groups raised the issue at their separate AGMs, and talked about the need for farmer feedback through phone calls, email, or even on Twitter.

To make sure all of the farmers at CropConnect knew why this issue had come to the fore, Dobson took time to raise some of the issues that come with our current levy system.

“The current system funds last year’s crops,” Dobson said. Levies are paid and collected based on the crops you sell. If you’ve been seeding canola and wheat, you’ve been funding those organizations, but not contributing to new research in sunflowers, which could be your next big cash crop. It’s hard for new crops to get a foothold in research and marketing under a system like this. Who’s funding quinoa market development?

Here’s another issue Dobson raised. “It takes the same basic resources to support a crop, regardless of its size,” Dobson said. Whether you’re running a canola organization or an oat association, you need someone to answer the phones, someone to keep the books, someone to audit the books and someone to look at research proposals. You’ll have to print annual reports and pay the rent for an office to house these staff. These basic administration costs are about the same, regardless of the number of farmers growing the crop in question.

Dobson also said we also have an “ever-increasing board engagement problem.” With farm sizes growing, “the available pool of energetic farmers is shrinking.” There simply aren’t going to be enough farmers with the energy, ability and passion needed to serve on all of these boards.

While Dobson was talking about some form of collaboration among Manitoba’s levy-collecting commodity associations, he made it quite clear: “there has been no talk about reducing your levy.” And rather than a change that would be a simple merger, he said he was imagining “structure change that would lead to the kind of progress we’ve never seen before.”

The day after the keynote presentation, at the Manitoba Wheat and Barley Growers Association annual general meeting, farmers in attendance passed a resolution to “participate in collaborative initiatives with other grower organizations.” (Don’t be alarmed, it wasn’t all a big festival of hugging. Some MWBGA members forced a vote about a resolution amendment that required a debate about whether members should be called “producers” or “farmers/producer.” We’ll still have enough chaos in our farmer-funded system to keep things entertaining.)

I don’t know how the push to have organizations work more closely together will work in practice, but I’m intrigued and I hope you are too. You can send your comments to your favourite commodity association board member, or to Kelly at [email protected].

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