A look back at the move to an open wheat market — a LIVE! Q&A with Jeff Nielsen


For those just starting their careers in agriculture, it might seem strange to think that one of the most controversial topics in the past was about whether or not farmers could sell their own wheat and barley to an end user.

Just eight years ago, the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) had its single desk removed. Before then, if any customer wanted western Canadian wheat, it had to go through the CWB. It was actually illegal to sell wheat outside of the monopoly — and farmers even went to jail over it.

To observe the start of the new grain year, and to look back at this monumental shift in Canadian grain marketing history, this LIVE! features Jeff Nielsen, chair of Grain Growers of Canada and farmer from Olds, Alta., who also served as a director on the CWB board at the time.

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  • Let’s take a walk down memory lane for a bit here, and think back to before August 1, 2012
  • Management was in a different frame of mind, group of 8 that wanted to keep single-desk marketing, and Nielsen served as a director that wanted change
  • It was difficult to complete day-to-day activities with drama in the boardroom? Yes, but there was a code of conduct.
  • “CWB travelling roadshow” funds were used to lobby for single-desk on that roadshow, can find on the interview on RealAg, Nielsen spoke his mind about how those funds were being used.
  • Communist Party of Canada set up booths at every meeting!
  • Discussion from members, in anger, wanting change. There was significant tension at meetings from farmers on opposite sides of the issue, couple of meetings needed security, like a Van Halen concert
  • Back to the boardroom: opposite ends of the spectrum, had to be tough to get past their differences and keep working together, keep the board functioning?
  • Professionalism prevailed, due diligence reports got done, markets were paid attention to, just a complete division, sign on the Fairmont board meeting rooms that CWB supper for the group of eight only
  • History of this issue: drama happening at the level of the board, but also a lot of drama around this topic; farmers crossing the border to sell their wheat, resulting in jail time for 13 farmers, as little as a bag of wheat to donate to a 4-H club, organized protest, all the appropriate authorities were notified, when they came back into Canada, their vehicles were seized at the border, were charged, fines were settled that day, one said what the heck I’ll go to jail, put his skills to good use on the Lethbridge prison farm
  • Who gets strip searched because they’re trying to sell grain at a better price? A farmer from Manitoba.
  • What was the point where you realized we’re past the apex of the issue, there’s no turning back? Lakers purchased by CWB
  • “Western farmers are losing their monopoly because of the government”
  • “Who’s steam-rolling who?” Shaun remembers interviewing Wayne Easter: “Mr. Ritz is dreaming in technicolour”
  • It was a very polarized issue, and before social media, had that technology existed back when all of this was happening, issue could’ve been a lot more… interesting?
  • Having the ability to sign a contract without a single-desk, markets support it, being able to market your own commodity, allows for growth. More of a role in the market, deliver grain into the market at a different time of year to be able to get the best price. Not being able to manage your own cash.
  • CWB: Canadian Western Bank?
  • What hasn’t worked out like we thought it would: IP programs
  • Single-desk wasn’t looked upon favourably by other countries in terms of marketing
  • Durum plant? When it came to malt barley, it was made clear that there wouldn’t be investment in Canada unless they could source directly from barley producers, but barley producers did not support the monopoly according to surveys
  • Craft beer growth wouldn’t be possible without barley marketing opportunity, would it happen with single-desk? Probably not
  • Can Canada realistically continue to be competitive growing wheat against global powerhouses like Russia, Argentina? Nielsen agrees that Canada is aware that better quality competitive grains is our biggest threat. South America could be a contender and if Australia could get out of the drought, it could take off. How will we position ourselves going forward when we clearly need to update infrastructure?
  • Managing cash flow was the biggest issue during CWB. Why did canola get so popular? Pulses as well? Farmers found crops that they could market on their own.
  • Friends of the CWB are still going eight years on, someone feels that there’s still money missing, producer payment options were the same as contracts are now.
  • Perhaps CWB was given away with little monetary return from their assets sold back to the farmer? Other than an office building and only 10 per cent down on those lakers, there aren’t any other assets.
  • Nielsen’s take away from the situation: lack of respect for due diligence and proper governance that he carries forward to working with other boards, if senior management was on side that change could be created and value could be added for farmers
  • G3 evolution and growth and the expansion of other companies building elevators, trade is expanding.
  • Supply management is supported by all political parties in Canada right now.
  • G3 has a pool, has Nielsen pooled any wheat since then? No.
  • Any plans for a book? Members of the old CWB board could certainly write one on the subject.
  • Collector’s item: toothpicks, maybe a hat signed by Minister Ritz somewhere
  • When Marketing Freedom Day finally arrived, the party was held at Kindersley, Sask., at the farm of one of the farmers who had actually gone to jail, re: CWB rules. Prime Minister Stephen Harper was there, and he pardoned the 13 farmers that went to jail.
  • The ability to work together and still have differing opinions seems to be a lost skill (or sometimes a non-existent skill).

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