Preserving Identities

Commentary, Agriculture, Robert Sopuck

Recently I had the opportunity to meet with a number of key business people and farmers from the Brandon area. The purpose of the meeting, kindly hosted by Don Penny of Myers, Norris and Penny, was to discuss rural and agricultural policy. In the course of this free wheeling discussion, I was struck by a couple of things.

One was that people really care about the future of their communities. Second, viable solutions to the problems of rural development abound in the intellects of local people. Throw in an optimistic view of the future, which these folks all share, and the sky’s the limit.

It’s easy to talk in generalities, and we all do, so I pressed the group to come up with specific recommendations. One of the farmers said that it’s about time we used our grain handling system to its full capacity. He suggested we refine the system of grain identity preservation (IP) to service emerging new and specialized grain markets.

The IP issue reminded me of a chat I had the week before with Charlie Mayer, federal Wheat Board Minister for nine years.

Charlie is quite concerned about the effect that new grain production from former Soviet Bloc countries will have on established Canadian markets like Iran. Russia and the Ukraine, both former customers, have become competitors, with lower costs of production that can undercut Canadian farmers. The only way for us to compete, according to Charlie, is to specialize. This is where IP comes in.

Charlie described to me how specialized milling and baking have become. To produce a consistent product, bakers need wheat with very specific and consistent characteristics. Ever wonder why submarine sandwich buns are all the same length, width and height? That’s IP in action.

Over the years, Western Canada, has developed one of the best grain handling systems in the world and we have the ability to segregate according to grade. In the U.S. they generally, but not always, mix grain to create a grade with more uncertain results. Bakers therefore prefer Western Canadian wheat.

While Canada is good at grade segregation, Charlie thinks we could do much better. The current system should refocus on provided demanding customers with the exact quality of wheat they require and thereby capture a higher price for our farmers. We already grade our wheat, but you can be sure that number one wheat from Dugald, Manitoba is probably different from number one grown in far off Grand Prairie, Alberta..

Our marketing system needs to reflect on its business methods. It is common knowledge in the grain business that the Warburton Company of Great Britain buys specially segregated wheat. This wheat gives their bakery products the quality and consistency they demand. English customers pay more for Warburton bread and Warburton, in turn, pays a premium to the farmers. Let’s see more of this. We grow the best wheat in the world, let’s get paid for it.

A strengthened IP system would firm up direct bonds between farmers and their customers, with farmers planting according to the specific needs of specific buyers. Growers and processors of edible beans do this now. Why not wheat?

The Rural Renaissance Project