Customers in far-flung places such as Japan may seem far removed from a western Canadian farm. But those customers are keenly interested in how Canadian wheat and durum is grown and handled before it arrives at their mills, bakeries, or other processing facilities.
In fact, Japanese bakers are quite aware of different Canadian wheat varieties, Doug Chorney told producers during the Canadian International Grains Institute’s Combine to Customer program. As assistant Chief Commissioner of the Canadian Grain Commission, Chorney traveled to Tokyo, Japan, Seoul, Korea, Beijing, China and Singapore.
“We found the knowledge and intimate understanding of quality attributes of the Canadian crop to be quite surprising,” said Chorney during an interview after his presentation.
Chorney’s trip was just one leg of the new crop mission that the Canadian International Grains Institute (Cigi), Cereals Canada, and the Canadian Grain Commission undertakes after harvest each year. The mission gives wheat and durum customers a look at the current crop quality and attributes. Each team includes a farmer, grain exporter, and specialists from Cigi and the Canadian Grain Commission. In 2017, teams traveled to Asia, North Africa, West Africa, Europe, and Latin America.
The missions also give the various players in the grain value chain a chance to glean information from international customers on what they like, what they’re interested in, and what they’re concerned about.
What customers like
Canada doesn’t just offer wheat and durum for the premium quality market, said Chorney. Canadian exporters also have a wide offering of grain qualities for international customers.
“We sell into the entire world,” he said.
When customers order shipments of specific grades or quality attributes such as protein, they are looking for consistency, Chorney said. That consistency is crucial to the economic success of big flour mills.
Kristina Pizzi heads Cigi’s analytical services. She has been on three new crop missions to Latin America. She’s also joined new crop missions traveling to North Africa and the Middle East, plus Europe.
Pizzi agrees that Canada is known for a consistent, clean product. That’s important to buyers because they blend Canadian wheat with weaker, lower quality wheats.
“So the Canadian wheat needs to have that quality to be able to carry that wheat so it can produce the end products that our consumers are expecting,” said Pizzi.
Pizzi thinks a combination of things contribute to Canada’s quality edge. One is a science-based grading system. Another is the intense varietal registration process, which ensures that varieties meet quality standards.
“We’ve had issues in the past with the gluten strength not meeting the standards, so that’s even tighter now, to ensure that consistency,” she said.
Canadian Western Red Spring (CWRS) is prized for its balance between gluten strength and extensibility, making it ideal for processing. But it’s not the only Canadian wheat class adored by international customers.
For example, Latin American customers love Canada Prairie Spring Red (CPSR), said Pizzi. They ask why there isn’t more. She’s also observed interest in Canadian soft wheat in both Latin and Central America. Soft wheat is lower protein, making it ideal for cakes, cookies, and crackers.
Their interests and concerns
Chorney said that customers were well informed and aware of the wheat class modernization program. Some varieties that didn’t meet end-use standards were moved out of the CWRS class as part of that program.
Drew Baker, a Manitoba farmer, traveled to Japan, South Korea, China and Singapore on last year’s new crop mission. While speaking to Combine to Customer attendees, he said that he grew up with the perception that Canadian wheat is No. 1.
“And for the most part, that is how Canadian wheat is seen,” said Baker. “But there are issues that we heard about on the trip and it’s stuff that we can take steps to correct.”
From what Baker heard, gluten strength isn’t an issue right now “but we’re not out of the woods yet.”
Gluten strength isn’t the only issue customers are interested in. Baker talked to people about soil erosion, carbon sequestration, and energy used per tonne of crop produced. Customers were also interested in newer harvesting practices such as straight cutting. They wanted to know about aeration, and wanted assurance that farmers’ bins are clean and free of insecticides such as malathion.
People were also interested in crop inputs, said Baker, “herbicides, insecticides, how we use them responsibly.”
There was one crop input in particular customers were concerned about: glyphosate. Before the new crop mission, Baker thought worries around glyphosate were more of a Western issue. But Japanese customers wanted to know whether Canadian farmers use glyphosate as a desiccant. Questions about glyphosate arose in Singapore and South Korea as well.
Baker said that glyphosate is an issue the industry needs to get in front of. As long as there is a perception that glyphosate is dangerous, it’s going to be an issue, he said.
Japanese customers also asked why they’re detecting small levels of insecticides in some grain shipments.
“It’s hard to answer that,” said Baker. “I mean, a lot of us know we’re not supposed to be putting most insecticides in our bins.”
Another problem is that our wheat is wet when it’s unloaded. It leaves Canada frozen, then sucks up moisture while crossing the humid ocean. But winter is also a good thing, Baker pointed out to customers. It keeps grain from spoiling and also means farmers don’t need insecticides in bins.