As you look back on 2015, do you feel the January blues coming on?
The oil price crash went from bad to awful, tighter margins were made worse by summer drought, and ‘disaster’ seems a charitable description for Bill 6.
But there were lots of positive developments in the past year and now’s not a bad time to recall them as we head into 2016.
Things have changed
In 2011, the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute think-tank conducted an in-depth review of the Canadian beef sector by talking to more than 80 “stakeholders” — beef producers, feedlot operators, processors, retailers, and others.
Its report was not a fun read, describing a fractured sector where there was lots of distrust and “no long-term and shared strategic plan.”
A lot has changed since then, and this is illustrated by the front-page story from last January, describing the “Big Hairy Audacious” goals of the new national beef strategy for 2020 — namely to boost production efficiency by 15 per cent, increase carcass cut-out value by 15 per cent, and reduce cost disadvantage relative to global competitors by seven per cent.
“You can’t make every goal in life, but if you don’t set something that’s higher than what you have today, you can’t strive to get there,” said Trevor Atchison, the Manitoba rancher who was co-chair of the strategy initiative.
If you want to check out how much progress is being made, you might want to attend the Canadian Beef Industry Conference in Calgary in August. It’s the first time the major beef industry groups have held a joint national event.
That’s a hugely positive sign for an industry that the think-tank described as being unable to collaborate because of its “cowboy mentality.”
More than dirt
The last paper of 2015 had a front-page story on the first-ever western Canadian conference on soil health, and co-chair Tom Fromme could barely contain his enthusiasm.
“I am more excited about agriculture right now than I have ever been in my whole life,” said Fromme, research co-ordinator with the North Peace Applied Research Association.
“I’ve been a researcher for longer than I can remember, and I just feel like this is the right direction.”
The fact the sold-out conference was packed with producers (and had to turn many more away) is one sign that something significant is happening in this whole ‘don’t treat soil like dirt’ movement.
And a lot of it is happening in Alberta.
A front-page story in April featured the work on cover crops done by Fromme’s association and the paper had many, many other stories on building soil health during the year. But what’s particularly significant is that this is a farmer-driven movement.
The North Peace group is one of many small Alberta organizations governed by producers and focused on research that matters to their members. Increasingly, things like cover crops, tillage radish, microbes, and soil biology are topping their list of applied research that boosts the bottom line.
We haven’t — so far — written a headline that says ‘Alberta producers go wild for mycorrhizal fungi.’
But the year is still young.
Yes, a lot of farmers are sick of hearing about consumers demanding this, that, and the other thing when it comes to how their food is produced.
But the May 11 livestock front on a new animal welfare assessment tool for feedlots is just one example of how well the farm community is responding to increased consumer scrutiny.
It’s worth noting that in this story — and this is true of similar assessment tools for both crops and livestock — that the focus is on finding simple, easy-to-use methods to show that producers are, by and large, already doing the right things.
“I don’t see that there would be any concerns at all, because producers are already doing these things,” feedlot veterinarian Dr. Joyce Van Donkersgoed said in this story.
This ‘document it’ business is also producing an important side benefit. For example, in the livestock sector, things such as low-stress weaning and preconditioning to reduce antimicrobial use are also good for the pocketbook.
There are many sayings about how problems come with hidden opportunities. Agriculture is full of people who embrace that wisdom.
This summer, we invited our colleagues from the Manitoba Co-operator to come visit us, and we put together a little tour that included some farm visits (as well as stops at Harmony Beef and the Canadian Beef Centre of Excellence). Of course, we also wrote about everyone we visited and the results can be seen in the July 6 paper and subsequent editions.
It is joyful work.
There is nothing like going to someone’s farm and seeing what passion and hard work can accomplish. It would be great if all Albertans could do the same.
Actually, they can. That’s what Open Farm Day is all about and more than 70 farm families welcomed the public to their operations on Aug. 23. And visitors were wowed.
“I thought, ‘Why would anyone want to come to a boring old conventional grain farm?’” remarked Irma producer Kent Erickson. “But really, why not? We take things for granted.”
Not every farm can participate in the event, but hopefully more will in 2016 and more non-farm folks will take advantage. There’s no better showcase for Alberta agriculture.
A good-news story continues
In the early 1970s, a pair of Manitoba researchers bred rapeseed with far less erucic acid and combined the words ‘CANada, Oil, Low and Acid’ to give it a new name.
Just five years after the first variety was released, Western Canada turned bright yellow as more than 8.4 million acres were planted and the term ‘Cinderella crop’ was coined.
Producers may be taking a wait-and-see approach to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which still faces a bumpy road to ratification — and even then, it may take years before the agreement leads to more sales.
But the truth is that canola has been a windfall for Prairie agriculture. Canola oil remains a premium product that fetches premium prices and has stimulated that rarest of things — a value-added processing industry. Indeed, Cargill opened its new one-million-tonne crush plant in Camrose last year.
Whether the TPP trade deal unfolds as expected or not, the fact remains that the canola industry remains forward thinking. The ball isn’t over for Cinderella yet.