They say time flies when you’re having fun.
But as two longtime Alberta Wheat board members prepare to say goodbye to the commission they helped build from the ground up, another saying seems just as fitting.
It’s never too late to make up for lost time.
“There was a void for a long, long time,” said Greg Porozni, a Mundare-area farmer who’s been on the Alberta Wheat board since its inception more than five years ago.
“We never had anybody representing wheat growers on a provincial level, even though it’s the second-largest crop in Alberta.
“I knew we had to fill this void. We needed to start investing in research and market development. It was important that we got this thing going for that reason. Frankly, it was probably overdue.”
The Alberta Wheat Commission has become so well established in the province — and on the national stage — it seems hard to remember a time before the bulk of provincial wheat growers had a farmer-led organization to represent them.
But prior to August 2012, when Alberta Wheat was officially launched after four years of discussion and research, wheat growers were represented by two commissions — Alberta Winter Wheat Producers Commission and Alberta Soft Wheat Producers Commission.
That left roughly 95 per cent of wheat producers without representation.
“It was quite a daunting task at the time,” said Porozni. “We were starting from scratch.”
Like Porozni, outgoing chair Kevin Auch was approached by farmers who wanted to merge the two commissions into one all-wheat organization.
“We didn’t have an all-wheat commission to tackle all of the challenges that we face with wheat,” said the Carmangay-area producer. “It seemed to me there was a bit of a vacuum there. I thought that it was a great idea to get a wheat commission going, and I wanted to get on board behind it.
“The rest is history.”
And the timing couldn’t have been better. The very day Alberta Wheat officially launched, the Canadian Wheat Board’s single-desk marketing power came to an end.
But Porozni said that timing was “irrelevant.”
“We were in the development stage well before the demise of the CWB,” he said. “It really didn’t matter what the wheat board was going to do — whether it was going to dissolve, which it did, or whether it was going to stay intact. We were going ahead no matter what.”
Even so, market development in a post-CWB world was one of the first challenges faced by the fledgling commission.
“I could see that some of the market development work that the wheat board was doing around the world may actually suffer,” said Auch. “If we no longer had a single Canadian wheat seller around the world, we needed to pick up our game as an industry and try to improve on that part of the wheat board’s business. We didn’t want to drop the ball on that.”
And while there have been “bumps along the way,” Auch feels it’s been a good run over the past five years.
“When you change the fundamental marketing structure of a crop like that, there are going to be hiccups,” he said. “But I think for the most part we have moved forward.”
The growth of the Alberta wheat industry seems to bear that out, he added.
“If you look at the investment that’s gone into grain facilities that have gone up in Western Canada, it’s been huge. I think there’s been more investment in the last five years than there was in the last 20 before that.”
And prices aren’t half bad either.
“Our price definitely hasn’t suffered,” he said. “Part of the problem that farmers had back when the wheat board was in place was they couldn’t individually sell wherever they wanted.
“Now there are lots of players involved, and they’re all competing for our business. If you have more people competing for your crop, that translates into higher bids for the farmers involved.”
Having Alberta Wheat to go to bat for growers has helped with that, said Porozni.
“Can we put a dollar figure on our profitability because we have a strong board with good governance? Probably not,” he said. “But I will say that we’re doing all we can in our investments to increase the profitability of wheat farmers in Alberta.”
Successes and growing pains
Those investments have focused on two key areas — research and market development.
“Our priority was to get the Alberta Wheat Commission up and running to represent farmers, primarily on research and market development,” said Porozni.
That was the second challenge for the new commission.
“Our first budget was around $3.5 million,” said Auch. “That sounds like a lot of money, but it’s really not when you’re trying to spread it out over all the different areas that you want to help the industry in, like market development and research.”
Since then, Alberta Wheat has invested nearly $2 million annually in research, spearheaded the creation of Cereals Canada, and participated in global trade missions to boost Canada’s wheat profile on the global stage, among other things.
“We’ve had to build the Alberta Wheat Commission up from an entity that didn’t exist to a fully staffed, functioning organization that had the people and resources to carry out some of these tasks and goals,” said Auch.
And that came with some growing pains, Porozni added.
“We were starting from scratch and it was difficult to get staffed up as quickly as we wanted to with the right staff,” he said. “But we’re there now. We’ve crossed that hurdle.”
Porozni credits that, in part, to collaboration within the wheat industry and the crop sector as a whole.
“Our board has always been very, very focused on collaboration,” he said. “We need to leverage dollars and expertise. We know we can’t do this on our own.”
That’s also where he sees the value in having a commission like Alberta Wheat to represent farmers.
“I always look at it from the perspective of the producer. If we had to promote market development or invest in research as individuals, it’s just impossible,” said Porozni. “I need a commission for all this work. There’s just no way we could do this on our own.”
As Porozni and Auch prepare to pass the torch at the AGM later this month, both see a bright future ahead for the organization.
“We have a great group of directors who are always striving to do better,” said Auch. “We’ve always set out to make sure we’re setting a direction for the organization that will benefit farmers.”
Auch doesn’t plan to “drop off the face of the planet” once he leaves the board, though.
“I really enjoy doing things to help the industry,” he said. “It’s been very rewarding for me personally just to have been involved in helping guide something that is so beneficial for farmers.
“I’d like to thank Alberta farmers for putting their trust in me and allowing me to help benefit the industry.”
Porozni echoed his sentiments. “I’m very optimistic about our long-term future. We have a great staff and excellent board.”
But after nearly 30 years of sitting on various provincial and national boards, Porozni has a different plan in mind for his new-found spare time.
“I’m going to work on my golf game,” he said with a laugh.