At the end of Heather Johnson’s first day of work for the Canadian International Grains Institute (Cigi), her colleagues rolled out a fresh rack of bread for everyone to enjoy.
“Boy, have I landed in the right place,” she said to herself that day.
Johnson, Cigi’s director of communications, was speaking to Combine to Customer delegates in mid-February. Combine to Customer is a 2.5 day program that gives producers a broad overview of the grain industry. It highlights what international customers are looking for, where Canada has a competitive edge, research in everything from oat breeding to pulse milling, and how the supply chain works. The program is a combination of classroom sessions and tours of labs and processing facilities.
Cigi is a non-profit that receives its core funding from grain export firms and farmer wheat checkoffs. Cigi aims to increase the use of Canadian grain and field crops both domestically and internationally. Staff members do this by evaluating and processing crops, and offering technical expertise to customers from around the world. The non-profit also works with other industry stakeholders, including its office mates, the Canadian Grain Commission (CGC) and Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre.
That collaboration was part of the draw for Outlook, Sask., farmer Anthony Eliason.
“I was at a grading school put on by Sask Wheat and Sask Canola and they were talking about it,” said Eliason, adding that he was interested in learning more about the grading system. Eliason and the other delegates took in a grain inspection and grading demonstration at the CGC’s facilities.
Interviewed halfway through the program, Eliason said he was impressed by how much lab work happens behind the scenes, on an ongoing basis. For example, he said, each load of barley is tested before it leaves the port, “so by the time it gets to its destination, they already have results for them.”
Neil Perkins, who farms near Star City, Sask., was so impressed by how the CGC grades wheat that he’d decided to sign up for the CGC’s Harvest Sample Program. Farmers enrolled in the program send in grain samples and receive free unofficial grades, as well as info on dockage and other quality indicators.
Interviewed at the end of the program, Perkins said he was also impressed by all the processing they do at Cigi. “They’ve got miniature machines to process just about anything we could possibly have.”
While the mushroom-shaped office building that houses Cigi in downtown Winnipeg doesn’t look radically different from its neighbours, as Johnson said, it’s not a typical office building. Inside Cigi has an analytics lab, flour mill, bakery, noodle processing line, pasta plant and pulse mill. The CGC also has flour mills, lab equipment and grading equipment. And the Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre runs malting systems and breweries. Combine to Customer delegates saw it all, and touched and sampled the products coming off the line.
As a nurse, Sara Bender appreciated the nutritional perspective of the tours of the bakery, pasta and noodle plants and pulse mill. She was also interested in how protein content and quality translated into end products, and how many different ways we can incorporate Canadian crops into our diets. One of her biggest take-aways was how privileged Canadians are to have a safe food system, she said at the closing luncheon.
“The thing that kept coming back was how much they stressed the quality of Canadian grain that we have,” said Bender. “And how, throughout the world, Canadian grain is blended with less superior grains to get… the end product that they want.”
Bender also farms with her family near Bentley, Alberta. She described her role on the farm as a supportive one. But as someone married to a farmer, she often finds herself fielding questions about agriculture. Everyone in agriculture needs to be proactive so they can give intelligent answers about the industry, she said.
“So if you are attached to agriculture in whatever spectrum, it’s excellent to come to see what Cigi is doing on behalf of producers around the world, and the research that they’re doing,” Bender said. “Because it is so vital so that our product is safe, and tested, and true.”
Megz Reynolds found it hard to narrow down her biggest take-away.
“I have at least 10 pages of notes I’ve written so far on everything that I’ve been learning,” said Reynolds, when interviewed halfway through the program. Reynolds farms near Kyle, Sask.
Reynolds said she was learning something valuable in every session. For example, she said she learned that durum was used to make couscous. She was also surprised to learn that Italy wasn’t the No. 1 export market for Canadian durum in 2016-2017.
In fact, Algeria topped the list last year as Canada’s No. 1 durum export market last year. Italy did have the largest five-year average up to 2016-17. Morocco is also one of Canada’s top export markets for durum, coming in at No. 3 three last year. This was just one example of what attendees learned about international markets.
All four participants interviewed had positive comments about the program. Perkins commented that he’d probably learned more in the last three days than he had in the last 30 years. Asked what he would say to anyone who had an opportunity to attend, Perkins responded:
“I think they’re crazy if they don’t come because it’s a very, very beautiful program. It was really well-attended and everybody that was here really enjoyed it. We all learned lots.”
So you want to go to Combine to Customer?
In February and March each year, the Canadian International Grains Institute (Cigi) facilitates Combine to Customer sessions at its office near Portage and Main in downtown Winnipeg. In 2018, Cigi held four of these sessions, bringing in about 100 people in total.
Most seats are reserved for farmers. Cigi covers producers’ costs, including flights, meals and hotels. Provincial wheat commissions and exporters are the main bodies that recommend participants to Cigi, so farmers interested in attending should check with their provincial wheat commissions.
Saskatchewan producers may also be able to get a seat through the Agricultural Producers’ Association of Saskatchewan (APAS). Megz Reynolds, one of the attendees, is also enrolled in APAS’ mentorship program. Reynolds said that APAS encourages mentees to attend Combine to Customer to learn about what’s done with their grain and where it goes, so they have a better understanding of the end target.
Colleen Hennan, APAS’ communications and community relations coordinator, was also one of the attendees. Afterwards, she explained that APAS works with Sask Wheat to make sure all of the Saskatchewan seats are filled, as they want to support the program.
Both Keystone Agricultural Producers and the Alberta Federation of Agriculture have forwarded names in the past as well. However, keen producers in those provinces may be better off checking with the wheat commissions, as they try to fill the seats first.