Your Wheat Needs A Champion

You need a champion for your wheat, and right now that champion is the CWB — whether you like it or not. While pro-choice supporters wait for an open market, they and their pro-board rivals must pressure the directors, using constructive criticism, to make sure the board does the best job it can to open new markets at premium prices.

As you know, Canada faces stiff competition from other wheat exporters, particularly from the number one wheat exporter, the U. S. Your competitors south of the border have U. S. Wheat Associates (USW) as their champion. The farmer-run organization uses farmer contributions and a great deal of funding from USDA to market U. S. wheat around the world. And some of their marketing tactics aggressively promote U. S. wheat as a better choice than Canadian wheat. To prove my point, I selected these excerpts from the USW annual report for 2007-08:

“Mexico now imports about half of its wheat via rail. Recognizing that direct connections between buyers and sellers would help preempt competition from Canada, USW sponsored a Transportation and Logistics Seminar in Mexico City last November. Large Mexican wheat buyers and importers as well as executives from Mexico’s two principle railroads met over two days with U. S. wheat producers, country elevator operators and wheat commission representatives.”

On the topic of durum wheat, the report states: “Another emerging opportunity is Japan’s increasing interest in contracting for U. S. durum as an alternative to unreliable Canadian supplies. USW is working with state wheat commissions to ensure Japan can fulfill this growing demand.”

USW also helps keep the U. S. wheat industry on top of and ahead of changes in global trends. “USW and (the National Association of Wheat Growers) are working together to help build support for the inevitable introduction of transgenic wheat,” the report states. “We are defending the environmental and social benefits of the technology, with the best interests of producers, handlers, millers, processors and consumers in mind.”

Where does USW get it resources to do this work? It got $2.59 from the USDA for every $1 from producers in 2007-08. “This allowed wheat growers to invest only one-quarter of a penny per bushel to fund almost $15 million in foreign market development,” the report says. Total U. S. wheat exports over the past three years have ranged from 23 million to 27 million tonnes.

In contrast, the CWB spends $500,000 a year on its own export promotion work, and gets another $4 million worth of market upkeep and development from the Canadian International Grains Institute, says Earl Geddes, VP of product development and marketing support for the CWB. (Note, half of that $4 million comes direct from the federal government and the other half comes from the CWB.) This $4.5 million is used to market Western Canadian wheat exports, which have been in the range of 14 million to 16 million tonnes annually over the past three years. On a per-tonne basis, USW spends a lot more on market development than the CWB does. And the USW doesn’t actually do any selling, says Geddes. So does this mean you’re getting good value? Or does it mean the CWB isn’t doing enough to market your wheat abroad?

Evidence our “Champ” Needs Training

You might answer “yes” to the second question above after reading a December article on food-navigator.com.The article is about the great yielding but lower quality wheat harvest in the U. K. in 2008. Production was 32 per cent above 2007, but protein levels are down 0.9 percentage points, from 12.2 last year to 11.3 this year.

The U. K. will have to import high protein wheat to keep its bakers happy. Canada, its former breadbasket, would seem the logical source, right? After all, high protein bread wheat is our specialty. So why did Icaro Rebolledo, economist with the U. K.’s Home Grown Cereals Authority (HGCA), skip over Canada when he made the following statement in the article: “For bread-making wheat, there will have to be more imports from the U. S. and from France, if they have it.”

I asked Rebolledo why he left Canada off his short list. He said it was a mistake and that he meant to say North America as a continent, not just the U. S. itself. That might make you feel a bit better, but his practice of lumping Canadian and U. S. wheat together doesn’t do Canadian wheat any good if, as we believe, our wheat is THE superior high-quality bread wheat.

Rebolledo added: “In terms of Canadian wheat marketing, I think overall you do a good job in terms of the reputation your grain has. In my personal opinion I come across French and U. S marketing a lot more than Canadian, but I imagine it is a matter of me living in Europe. Hence, I would just point out that perhaps some more exposure in public events could benefit the marketing greatly.”

Improvements on home turf

Maybe the CWB could use its experiences with branding here in Canada and spend a little money to apply these same practices in the U. K. and other markets. For example, the CWB is a lead supporter of “Grains: They’re essential,” a campaign to educate consumers about the health benefits of eating cereals, particularly whole grains. Other lead supporters are the Canadian Pasta Manufacturers Association, the Bakers’ Association of Canada, and a few breadmakers. Check out the website at www.grainsessential.ca.

Example two: The CWB and Robin Hood worked together on “Simply Homemade” recipe booklets available in grocery stores and magazine. A CWB quality message also appears on the side-panel of bags of Robin Hood flour bags.

Example three: The CWB is helping Primo brand its new GrainWise line of pasta. Incentive to undertake these efforts, says CWB spokesperson Maureen Fitzhenry, came from a survey showing that less than 50 per cent of Canadian consumers are aware that their bread and pasta is made with Canadian wheat, but 89 per cent believe it’s important to buy Canadian-made products.

Is it working? Fitzhenry: “It is really hard to expect a significant change in consumption pattern from the short time we’ve been doing this. (Co-branding started last year only, and Grains: They’re Essential has been going for only a few years and not on a huge budget, targeted mainly at dieticians and nutritionists.) So the results are mixed.”

More about GrainWise

Primo’s new GrainWise line of pasta contains 100 per cent whole grain durum. This durum will come from Western Canadian wheat growers exclusively, which will be highlighted on the packaging. Safeway and other stores that carry Primo pasta will have GrainWise signage in the pasta aisle, and you’ll see the new GrainWise packaging hit shelves in a couple months.

GrainWise 100 per cent whole grain pastas will be different from whole wheat pastas already on the market, says Primo COO John Porco. That’s because “whole wheat” is usually reconstructed from the separate components: white flour, bran and germ. “Whole grain” pasta is made from the whole durum endosperm only. It will be darker than the standard “white pasta,” Porco says, but not as dark brown as whole-wheat pastas.

Primo is the only major pasta maker in Canada with its own mill. For this reason, it buys directly from the CWB. I asked Porco whether Primo’s relationship with Western Canadian farmers will change if the CWB disbands. His answer: “Our relationship with the CWB is very good. They deliver a great quality product and on time. I don’t know how it would get any better under a different system.”

Sign off

Happy Birthday to my grandma, Donalda Whetter, who turned 90 on January 2. She still lives in the little house on the farm that she moved into shortly after marriage in 1940. How many people can say they’ve lived in the same house for almost 70 years? Congratulations grandma! You are one special woman.

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