Visions of the future: Canada’s crop sector looks ahead

Four crop industry leaders share their hopeful vision for their sectors in the coming decade

As we leave 2020 behind us, it isn’t hard to see hope on the horizon.

That’s the view of four producers who sit on the boards of the province’s big crop commissions and were asked to share their vision for their sectors in the next 10 years.

More pulses, please

Shane Strydhorst.
photo: Supplied

Shane Strydhorst’s vision of a perfect world (or at least a strong agriculture industry) includes pulse acres on every farm in the province.

“In our area of the province, there’s a lot of farms that just have a wheat-canola or a barley-canola rotation,” said the Alberta Pulse director, who farms northwest of Edmonton. “I don’t think that’s sustainable. We’re seeing more disease issues popping up like clubroot and blackleg in our canola and fusarium head blight in wheat. I think we just need to have a little bit more diversity.”

For Strydhorst, that’s more than just peas, beans, and lentils. Better genetics could make fababeans, chickpeas, soybeans, and lupins a fit on more farms, he said.

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“Not all the current options are well suited for all regions of the province. Each of the options has its own set of production challenges, so hopefully we can find a pulse crop option that will work on everybody’s farm.”

And more pulse processing is on his list, too.

“The recent move toward plant-based protein is quite exciting for the pulse industry,” he said. “I make no secret that I love to eat meat as much as anybody, but I think there will — in the next few years — be increasing demand for pulse ingredients. I think we will be positioned to expand and fulfil these demands.”

But open markets are key, as well.

“I hope resolutions can be found between some of our trading partners,” he said. “I hope that borders can stay open and vibrant with China. They seem to have been a big buyer and have stepped up since India slowed down buying from us.”

Gaining and maintaining consumer trust through programs like Keep It Clean! and by demonstrating that pesticides are being used responsibly are central to that.

“It’s important that farmers realize how important it is that we not only grow food safely but that we’re also perceived as growing food safely by the food-consuming public.”

The pulse sector is well positioned to build that trust, he said.

“Due to the nitrogen-fixing nature of pulse crops, I think the story of the reduced reliance on fertilizer is a good sustainability story to tell,” he said. “We just have to find ways to inform the public of that going forward.”

Staying strong

Greg Sears.
photo: Supplied

For Greg Sears, the growing rural-urban divide is at the heart of the wheat sector’s challenges in Canada, and something he’d like to see the industry focus on in the coming decade.

“Making sure the urban folk understand what we do is growing in importance,” said the Alberta Wheat director, who farms near Sexsmith.

“There’s a need for us to ensure that the environment we operate in is, from a regulatory perspective, science based and that we’re able to communicate the importance of our industry to those who have never set foot on a farm.

“I think that’s a really big thing for all sectors of agriculture, not just wheat.”

At the same time, growers here have to maintain a competitive advantage in the world market and for Sears, that means better varieties.

“The varieties we’re growing now are capable of some yields that were unheard of a decade ago,” he said. “But there’s a fair bit of work to be done ensuring Canada maintains a competitive plant-breeding environment so that farmers always have access to top-quality genetics. That’s one of the bigger challenges coming up in the next five years.”

Another is market access, he said, pointing to Europe, and particularly Italy where country-of-origin labelling has been used as a trade barrier.

But ultimately, the success of Canadian wheat comes down to being able to compete.

“Wheat is that crop that is growing everywhere around the world — there’s a wheat crop coming off pretty much all the time, every season, all around the world. It’s a very competitive market, and we need to be able to maintain our ability to compete against the former Soviet Union and the emerging producers in Africa and all over the world.”

That means levelling the regulatory playing field and “exploiting the advantages we have in Canada.”

“We may not have the lowest-cost environment, but we certainly have the ability to produce a very high-quality, safe product — one that should gain us some premiums in the market,” said Sears.

Cheers to better varieties

Sean Stanford.
photo: Supplied

More money for research and market development is high on Sean Stanford’s agenda for advancing both malt and feed barley.

“The wheat and barley commissions are talking about amalgamating, and if they go ahead and do that, it might actually increase the resources the barley commission has to put into research, product development, and market development,” said the Alberta Barley director, who farms near Magrath.

“I see that as an opportunity to be able to grow. If the commission had some money to do more of that, it would make a huge difference.”

The feed side, in particular, is anxious for better varieties, he added.

“Speaking with some of my neighbours who have grown feed barley for 20 or 30 years, they’re not too impressed that there hasn’t been as much variety development in the feed market as there has been in the malt market,” said Stanford.

“Hopefully with these new feedlots getting built, they’re going to need more production, and we can put a little more research money to try to help figure out how to produce more feed grains off the same amount of land we have right now.”

Stanford would also like to see more dual-purpose varieties.

“I know a few guys in the area who grew crossover varieties — could be a malt, could be a feed — and theirs ended up not going to malt, but they still got good yield off of it so they could sell it for feed,” he said, adding that in prior times, not making malt grade meant losing “a bunch of money.”

On the malt side, Stanford would like to see further growth in the relationships — and premiums — offered by big brewers.

Two years ago, Molson Coors developed a program to pilot its own variety of malt barley in southern Alberta. After getting involved in the program last year, Stanford thinks this could be the future as more big brewers contract directly with farmers.

“They’re shaking up the malt industry a little bit in southern Alberta here by having their own almost farm-to-table pipeline for their product,” he said. “They have us grow their variety under contract, they malt it themselves, and then they produce the beer themselves. That’s pretty neat.”

He hopes other big brewers move in that direction.

“If there’s a premium to be had on growing a specific barley product, I could see a lot more people getting involved with it, and that might put a little more pressure on the other bigger brewers to do the same thing.”

‘Lots of opportunity’

Roger Chevraux.
photo: Supplied

The future for canola looks golden to Roger Chevraux.

“I think the sky is the limit,” said the Alberta Canola director, who farms near Killam. “There’s lots of opportunity, and it will be an exciting 10 years to come.”

He’s hopeful the sector’s goal of hitting 52 bushels per acre is within reach. Increased yields will mean increased opportunities for trade domestically, in part because the federal government’s Clean Fuel Standard is expected to boost biofuel production.

“The Clean Fuel Standard has the opportunity to create a market that’s the size of Japan here domestically, which we’ve never really tapped into before,” said Chevraux. “I think that’s a huge opportunity for us.”

Free trade deals will also expand markets for both canola oil and meal, he added.

“I can see a lot more processing is going to occur in the Prairies,” he said. “Instead of just selling the commodity, I think we have an opportunity to sell the oil and the meal separately, and who knows where that could go?”

But market growth depends on “getting past some of the hurdles we have right now,” he added.

“I hope we have freer trade with more partners,” he said. “I’m hoping we’ve managed to diversify our markets well enough that we aren’t subject to the whims of a foreign government suddenly deciding that it’s going to embargo our product.”

Having the public, both at home and abroad, on side is critical, Chevraux added.

“That’s the biggest concern I have — public trust. As the urban population gets bigger and the rural population gets smaller, I think there are a lot of misconceptions out there that will continue to grow through social media,” he said.

“The fear of that for me is that it may start to be what dictates government regulations and policies that are going to impact our farms. We need to make sure that our consumers are well informed as to how safe their food supply is and that the innovations we’re using are good for providing healthy, safe food for everyone.”

Accomplishing that will not only be good for farmers, but the entire country, said Chevraux.

“If we do it right, agriculture is going to lead the economy in Canada.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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