Saskatoon wooing grain export development agency

Fears that scrapping the monopoly-powered Canadian Wheat Board could undermine Winnipeg’s dominance of grain-sector office space have been bolstered, with news Saskatoon wants the Canadian International Grains Institute (Cigi) to move there.

The offer came Nov. 29 during a meeting with Saskatoon economic development group representatives, Rex Newkirk, Cigi’s director of research and business development, said in an interview March 1.

"We were surprised," Newkirk said. "They sat down and within a minute or two they said ‘What do we have to do to move you to Saskatoon?’

"It’s important for people to understand there’s lots of competition out there, not just for Cigi but other grain industry players as well."

Cigi, created in 1972, employs 35 people and promotes Canadian grain exports by teaching end-users at its facility how best to use Canadian crops. Over the last 40 years 34,000 people from 110 countries have been attended Cigi courses.

The Canadian Wheat Board and the federal government fund Cigi. But after the board loses its monopoly Aug. 1, funding will come from a farmer checkoff and Ottawa.

Officials from Saskatoon met with other Winnipeg-based grain groups and at least one is moving to Saskatoon, Newkirk said. He declined to name the organization.

"We are not actively trying to poach," Tim LeClair, president of the Saskatoon economic development group that visited Cigi, told the Winnipeg Free Press. But it did ask Cigi where it sees itself in three years with the wheat board gone.

"Where the industry is"

Saskatoon’s Innovation Place at the University of Saskatchewan is already home to substantial amounts of agricultural research, both publicly and privately funded.

Cigi has no immediate plans to leave Winnipeg, Newkirk said, but that could change.

"So if they manage to pull a bunch of the industry out — I mean, Cigi needs to be where the industry is," he said. "We need to be in the centre of it to have access to these resources."

One way to ensure Cigi stays, Newkirk said, is for a proposed grain industry Centre of Excellence to be built.

"If we’re able to land a Centre of Excellence here that would certainly make it easier to say ‘Look, the industry is here and we’ve just got to stay, period.’"

Meyers Norris Penny concluded in a 2005 study that it made sense for Cigi, the Canadian Grain Commission and the Canadian Malt Barley Technical Centre, all now based in Winnipeg at 303 Main St., to be under one new roof with the wheat board and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Cereal Research Centre at the University of Manitoba.

"Significant cost savings are likely to be achieved in the form of streamlined operations, improved workflow, better utilization of equipment and facilities and elimination of duplication," the report said.

In 2008 then-Treasury Board president Vic Toews, a southeastern Manitoba MP, announced the five organizations could come together. The cost for a 28,000-square metre centre was estimated to be $150 million to $300 million. Four years later it appears it’s no closer to being built.

The Manitoba government should push both for Cigi and the centre, said Blaine Pedersen, the provincial Tories’ critic for agriculture, said in an interview Feb. 29.

"Obviously Saskatchewan is very serious about setting this up in Saskatoon," he said, noting Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall recently announced $10 million for wheat research.

"Seems logical"

Keeping Cigi is a priority for the Manitoba government, an aide to provincial Agriculture Minister Ron Kostyshyn said in an email.

"That’s why Premier (Greg) Selinger raised this with the prime minister in November and the minister raised it earlier this week in his very first meeting with (federal Agriculture) Minister (Gerry) Ritz," the aide said.

"In fact, Minister Kostyshyn toured Cigi just a week after being appointed… and that same day joined the premier in a meeting with U of M and Cigi to discuss how we continue to move forward."

The aide chided Pedersen and his Tory colleagues for failing to support the wheat board, given the impact its demise could have on Winnipeg.

Asked if Ottawa would fund the centre, Ritz replied that "the Harper government continues to invest in science and research to keep the agriculture industry, a pillar of our economy, on the cutting edge.

"Based on the long-standing tradition of grain trade and innovation being based in Winnipeg, it seems logical that’s where a cereal Centre of Excellence would be created."

– Allan Dawson is a reporter for the Manitoba Co-operator at Miami, Man. The full version of this article appeared in the March 8, 2012 Co-operator (page 17).

Related stories:
Sask. pledges seven figures to wheat research, Feb. 2, 2012
Manitoba to defend CWB status quo in ad campaign, June 13, 2011