Western Canadian farmers won’t have to make any major new decisions on wheat varieties this year, but come the spring of 2018 they will have to pay attention to whether some of their tried and true varieties have been moved to a different class.
Creating a new classification for some long standing wheat varieties that just don’t make the cut for hard red wheat specifications isn’t a perfect solution says a Saskatchewan farmer, but it’s probably the best option to ensure world bread makers are getting the quality Canadian wheat they want.
Margaret Hansen, who along with family members produces wheat, canola and barley on their farm near Langbank, in southeast Saskatchewan, says a plan by the Canadian Grain Commission (CGC) to move 29 “under performing” wheat varieties into a new (likely lower value) classification taking effect in 2018 may not be the best long-term solution for marketing wheat, but it is necessary under the current system.
“In principal I support the reclassification of these varieties,” says Hansen who is also Saskatchewan vice-president of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers. “I believe there are better ways to sell wheat than the current classification system, but for the time being it makes sense to move these under performing varieties into a new class. It is important that Canadian wheat customers get the quality of wheat they expect.”
The 29 varieties (see “Read more” links below) were initially registered in the Canadian Western Red Spring (CWRS) class, which is generally regarded as top of the line wheat most suitable for bread making. Some of these flagged varieties were marginal in terms of that high quality, particularly during some poor growing seasons and customers were complaining these wheats weren’t delivering the consistent quality — the high gluten strength — they were expecting. In the accompanying chart referring to extensograph Rmax (a measure of gluten strength) varieties such as Harvest, Unity, Lillian and McKenzie, for example, in 2014 were well below minimum requirements to qualify as CWRS wheats. After some review, the CGC decided to create a new classification for these and other varieties called the Canadian Northern Hard Red (CNHR) class.
Not suited for bread
The reclassification doesn’t mean these varieties are bad, says Jim Smolik, assistant chief commissioner with the CGC, it just means their quality limits make them more suitable for other end-use products such as noodles or flat bread, where gluten strength isn’t an issue.
“Probably the closest analogy is to the different grades of gasoline,” says Smolik. “There is premium gas, mid-grade gas and regular gas. They’ll all run your car, but the different grades have different components depending on what the customer wants and they have different values. These wheat varieties don’t have the quality to keep them in the premium (CWRS) grade so they are being moved into a new mid-grade category. They have qualities that suit a certain number of end-use food products, but they aren’t consistent enough to keep them in the higher value class.”
Smolik says buyers of Canadian wheat have complained they aren’t getting the consistent quality from Canadian wheat they were expecting. The reclassification is necessary to protect Canada’s reputation as a marketer of a range of grains, including high quality wheat. During CGC meetings with customers in key world markets last year, buyers were pleased to hear that Canada is tightening its quality control.
The reclassification process, which has been underway for more than a year, has met with some mixed reaction from the grain industry. Some farmers in particular aren’t happy that some of their favoured varieties with good yield and agronomics are being moved into a new class, which is potentially lower value than the CWRS class.
While Smolik says he understands their concerns, he also says there are still plenty of excellent wheat varieties within the CWRS class, and new varieties are being developed. The CGC extended the implementation of the new class until 2018 to give seed companies, plant breeders and farmers time to adjust their programs in light of the reclassification.
Sell according to spec
Back on her Langbank farm, Margaret Hansen says she would like to see a system where wheat classes are eliminated in favour of marketing wheat (or grains) on the basis of quality and specifications — a system now possible in an open market following the elimination of the Canadian Wheat Board.
“More farmers are moving to this approach where they are selling their grains based on customer specifications,” says Hansen. “It is a marketing system we use on our farm.” She says determining the class and grade of grain is initially based on a visual inspection, which doesn’t tell the story of the grains actual quality. She says she would like to see Canadian grains marketed according to quality and not based on variety or physical appearance.
“The customer provides the quality specifications they are looking for and then the grain is tested and it doesn’t matter what variety it is, or what it looks like — if it meets the quality specifications it is sold on that basis.
“We have had situations on our farm, (using fall rye as an example) where we’ve had a variety that looked good and graded No. 1 but when it was analyzed it just didn’t have the quality (a low falling number) that didn’t meet customer requirements. And we’ve had the reverse situation with grain samples that didn’t look that great, but they had high quality. So I think we need to get away from a system of arbitrary assessments and sell based on quality specifications. Farmers need to be aware if they have their grain tested to determine quality characteristics, it can give them a great deal of bargaining power.”
In the meantime, the reclassification of these former CWRS varieties will take effect August 1, 2018. Farmers delivering grain to buyers will have to specify variety on the declaration form at the elevator, which will then determine the class of the grain.
More details of the reclassification process can be found on the Canadian Grain Commission website at grainscanada.gc.ca.