Wheat Growers still going strong

In recent issues of Grainews I’ve been using this space to write about some of the many farm organizations working on our behalf. I’ve covered levy-collecting organizations, general farm organizations and how soybeans are represented. Now, it’s time to look at some of the political organizations. Let’s start with the right — the Western Canadian Wheat Growers.

With the Canadian Wheat Board’s monopoly powers stripped and a private company running what’s left of the CWB, I wondered if the Western Canadian Wheat Growers might have packed up their laptops and called it a day — after the victory party and all the back-slapping.

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However, not only is WCWG executive director Blair Rutter still in his office and answering his phone, he says he’s quite busy. “I thought we might have a lull,” he told me, “but there’s lots of other issues.”

WCWG Files

The de-monopolization of the CWB is sure to remain a high point in WCWG memory for a long time to come. “That certainly is the big policy achievement of the Wheat Growers over our history,” Rutter told me.

But even with that file moved into the cabinet, the dust has not totally settled on Western Canadian grain marketing. “We’re in a transition period here,” Rutter said. He believes it will take 10 years to develop a fully functioning market economy for grain in Western Canada. “That’s a legacy of the Wheat Board,” he said. “You do not move from a command economy to an open market economy overnight.”

While the first post-CWB crop year went well, the second was plagued with problems caused by what Rutter referred to as our “monster crop.” “That’s where the weaknesses of our system really came to light.”

“There’s no single solution. There’s a number of things that have to happen,” he said. “In 10 years we’re going to get to where we need to be.”

While some of the issues still be solved involve market access and other trade issues, solving grain transportation problems is going to be the key to making things work.

But grain transportation issues are keeping many Western Canadian farmers awake at night, and there are several other farm groups hard at work on the issue, from special crop shippers to general farm groups like KAP and all three of the newly formed provincial Wheat Commissions. I wanted to know what the WCWG is bringing to the table that other groups aren’t.

“We’re bringing the free enterprise point of view,” Rutter said. For the WCWG, the question is, “How can we bring about more competition into the marketplace and more market signals?”

When it comes to grain transportation, the WCWG’s question is: “How do we increase capacity, competition and service in the rail sector?”

One example of a transportation solution Rutter would like to see is a modification of the current railway revenue cap, a change that would give railways incentive to add capacity when farmers need it the most, during our peak shipping periods. “Right now,” Rutter said, “whether they haul it in December or June they get compensated the same.”

The WCWG sees the involvement of more U.S. players in our transport market as a positive trend. For example, the new rail terminal at Northgate, Sask., will be serviced by Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) and will ship Canadian grain straight south instead of east or west. “That will bring about the competition and the discipline that’s necessary to make sure all players treat you fairly,” Rutter said.

Basically, Rutter said, the WCWG are going to stay strongly involved in ag policy areas where they see a need for more competition. They’re not, for example, going to get involved in lobbying for something like changes to trucking rates. “Are trucking rates out of line? I don’t concern myself with that because I’m satisfied there are plenty of options.”

Where they see a concern about a lack of competition or a potential lack of competition, the WCWG will step in and start lobbying.

How does it work?

The WCWG is run by a 13-person board of directors, including president Levi Wood, a 31-year old farmer from Pense, Saskatchewan. Blair Rutter is the only staff member. (They hire out some of what he refers to as the “back office work.”)

While the new Wheat Commissions rely on default levy collection to raise funds from farmer members, the WCWG is on its own in that department. If you want to be a member, you have to take the initiative to phone them up (306-586-5866) or visit their website, wheatgrowers.ca.

Former WGWC chair, Saskatchewan farmer Gerrid Gust says there are about 450 WCWG members. Of these, 12 are agribusinesses.**

With annual membership rates of $300 per farmer, $525 for agribusinesses and $26.25 for students, it’s not hard to calculate that the WCWG is bringing in less than $140,000 a year through its membership fees. For comparison, the Saskatchewan Wheat Development Commission had a line item of $79,817 for board members’ “per diems, expenses and communications allowances” in its 2013-14 Annual Report, plus another $37,216 itemized for “meetings.”

But, membership fees aren’t the WCWG’s only source of funds. “We get some sponsorship at conventions,” Rutter said. “That makes us some money.” Some funds also come from enthusiastic members who make donations in addition to their membership fees.

Rutter tells me that the WCWG is truly a “lean operation,” and that he runs the office out of his home to keep costs down.

When I asked about membership trends, Rutter said, “It’s been holding steady.” They haven’t been losing members, he said, “we are maintaining.”

For now, Rutter says, the economics just aren’t there to send someone around to farmyards and trade shows to drum up new members. However, they have hired a summer student for this season, “to develop a marketing plan for us, to see how we can reach out to younger farmers.”

After what Rutter referred to as its “near death experience” 12 years ago, when the organization was desperately short of money, Rutter says, “We’re not flush with cash, but we’re at least not in danger of turning the lights out anytime soon.”

The future

What about their relationship with the new wheat commissions? Rutter says his members strongly supported these organizations. In Manitoba and Alberta, WCWG directors Grant Dyck and Kevin Bender are directors on their wheat commissions.

Rutter says the Commissions are filling a role that the WCWG is not designed to fill. “We only have one product, and that is policy advocacy.” As for the Commissions, “they’ve got a vital role to play in research and development.” While the Wheat Commissions have a role in promoting products to consumers or arranging on trade missions, “that’s not us,” Rutter said.

And, he says, the WCWG can fill a gap the Commissions can’t fill. “They’re limited or constrained on the policy side,” he pointed out. “They have to be centrist and accommodate viewpoints from across the political spectrum.”

“I find it liberating that I’m accountable to my members,” Rutter said. “I don’t have to be accountable to all farmers.” He says he likes that fact that the WCWG are not checkoff based, and they have to earn respect and dollars from Prairie farmers. “There’s something invigorating about that,” Rutter said.

This year, the WCWG convention was held in Winnipeg in January. In 2016, they’ll be meeting in New Orleans from March 1 to 3, in conjunction with the Commodity Classic, an annual U.S. ag convention and trade show.

 

**This article initially stated that the WCWG had 150 members, 12 of which were agribusinesses. Past WGWC chair Gerrid Gust explains that they actually have about 450 members, and “150 of them are very active,” he explained. Given that each membership typically represents a husband and wife team and often more family members, the WCWG commonly says they speak for 1,000 farmers.

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