The loss of the CWB monopoly was felt more as a ripple than a tsunami in the daily marketing lives of most western Canadian farmers. What many have come to realize, however, is that the role of the CWB extended far beyond the selling of wheat and barley on behalf of farmers. Like it or not, the CWB’s design meant that things like new product testing and developing of overseas markets was all handled through one body. I would argue the loss of the monopoly is having and will have a much larger impact on research and development than on actual wheat sales and prices.
I’m not alone in thinking this, nor am I the first to point it out. A recent post I wrote asking about the recent cropping up of provincial wheat commissions garnered many comments concerning current legislation governing check-off collection, farmer representation and long-term market and varietal development.
Recently, Danny Penner, a farmer and long-time grower-group leader from Manitoba published his thoughts on the establishment of a national farmer group to fill the void left by the loss of the wheat board monopoly. His reasoning, I believe, is sound, but I don’t know that farmers have the will to create a unified, national body. I do see, however, the overwhelming need for farmers to do something bold — national or western Canadian crop councils or groups would be a good start. Taking over the public varietal development programs would be a good next step.
One thing has become very clear to me — the federal government now, and the Liberals long before now — are starving out these programs and getting out of primary agriculture research (cutting Tom Wolf’s unique spray research program, for example). The writing has been on the wall for some time, and the erosion and flat out killing of programs is well underway. Farmers are at a crucial cross-roads. And not changing anything is a choice by default. Is it the one that will best serve farmers? Let’s discuss.
What would this change look like in terms of crop development? Let’s look at canola and pulses. Both crop types have very different development models. The canola industry is, for all intents and purposes, a private one. Pulses, however, are developed within a shared model between farmers, public and some private money. Cereals are the last of the lines still within the public domain, but that is changing rapidly as the life science companies see an opportunity and are working to fill it. Is that bad? Not necessarily. As a taxpayer, however, I’d much prefer these publicly developed lines move into farmers’ hands for their benefit.
It’s my belief that public development of cereal varieties is coming to an end. Our public breeding programs and lines will either be starved out and private companies will fill the void, or farmers themselves can get together with a progressive plan to take over this intellectual property and manage it for decades to come. Doing nothing is always an option, but then, by default, I believe we’re headed to the canola model for cereals (you can argue the merits of that, too, I’m not passing judgement).
There’s also the Australian model, one that several farmers I spoke with like. Critics of that model (more on it here) say that it will cut certified seed use even further. It’s also an expensive proposition, but one that some farmers feel could be attractive to outside investment — if research investment has such a great pay-off, funds should flow into this model easily.
It is clear that farmers need to mobilize soon to shape not only variety development, but primary production research and market development, as well. Are provincial groups enough? Efficient? Can changing the legislation happen smoothly and quickly to allow for a unified farm research and development group? Do you want it to?