Do Alberta’s wheat and barley commissions have a spending problem?
The chair of the Saskatchewan Wheat Development Commission suggested as much when he took a shot at GrainsWest, a magazine published quarterly by the Alberta Barley Commission and Alberta Wheat Commission.
“You’ll not see us putting out a great big glossy magazine,” Bill Gehl said at a seed growers’ meeting in Manitoba last month.
Gehl later softened his remarks, saying that he wished his “glossy magazine” comment had been more diplomatic.
But both his organization and its Manitoba counterpart have set significantly lower limits on the percentage of checkoff dollars that can be spent on administration and related costs.
For the Saskatchewan wheat commission, that’s no more than 15 per cent, while the Manitoba Wheat and Barley Growers Association is targeting 10 per cent.
Those numbers are higher in Alberta — around 20 per cent for both the province’s wheat and barley commissions. But officials say it’s money well spent.
“It costs money to run a commission and move markets forward,” said Matt Sawyer, Alberta Barley’s outgoing chair. “Each commission can manage it however they want.”
While funding research is a priority, so is advocacy and extension work — both of which count as administration costs, said the Acme-area producer.
“All of these things are a key component to a good commission,” he said. “There’s a lot more to running a provincial commission than just research and market development.”
And that type of work requires manpower, said Kent Erickson, chair of Alberta Wheat.
“Each organization is going to have to decide how many different initiatives and different programs they’re going to lead, and to be leaders in a program, you need to have people running your program,” he said.
By the numbers
The barley commission’s 2013-14 annual report lists revenues of $4.2 million — including $2.6 million from checkoffs, $646,000 for administering the western Canadian checkoff program, and $761,000 in federal AgriInnovation Program funding.
Salaries, benefits, and contractors was its largest commission-related expense ($764,000) with general and administrative costs ($462,000), research expenses ($396,000), marketing and events ($250,000), communication/government relations ($236,000), and market development expenses ($194,000) among the major expenses.
The wheat commission had a budget of $5.8 million in its 2013-14 fiscal year (ending July 31), most of it funded by a 70-cent-per-tonne checkoff.
A significant portion of that money went to research ($1 million), followed by market development ($813,000), salaries/benefits ($539,000), communication expenses ($296,000), meetings ($170,000), and general/administrative expenses ($162,000).
GrainsWest cost $246,000 and brought in $40,000 combined for the two commissions.
When the wheat commission was formed, its 11-member board and 15 regional reps debated how the checkoff money should be divided, said Erickson, who farms near Irma.
“We decided that, with our budget, we’re going to put 40 per cent to research and development, 20 per cent to market development, 20 per cent maximum to administration, and 20 per cent to other initiatives, like policy and communication,” he said.
The organization has struggled to “hit that 20 per cent (for administration) without having a skeleton crew,” he said.
While the goal is to deliver programs “as effectively and efficiently as possible,” staff are needed to run them, added Tom Steve, general manager at Alberta Wheat.
“When we are getting into different areas including extension programs, market development, and research, we do have to have good people in place,” he said.
Partnering with other organizations is critical to providing high-quality services at a reasonable cost, said Erickson.
“With things like Cereals Canada being involved strongly in international market development, we’re able to put program funding into those types of avenues and let them manage the administration side of it,” he said. “There are some efficiencies there.”
Each commission needs to “partner where it makes sense in order to get a better bang for our farmers’ dollars,” said Lisa Skierka, general manager at Alberta Barley.
“In order to be seen spending it wisely, you look for partnerships, and I think that’s what all of those groups are going to do,” she said. “They’re going to establish their own partnerships, whether it’s on research or market development or other priority areas, and through that be able to reach those targets.”
“Not only do we share administrative costs, financial services, and office space, we also share similar interests,” added Steve. “A lot of the farmers that we deal with grow wheat and barley, so farmers themselves have a common interest in the goals of the commissions.”
Filling ‘a gap’
GrainsWest was one of the first major collaborations between Alberta Barley and Alberta Wheat. Launched in early 2014, the magazine fills “a gap,” said Skierka.
“The idea of GrainsWest is that we are providing a different kind of value to farmers in Alberta in a way that we used to provide through our newsletter — but working with the Alberta Wheat Commission using fewer dollars and being able to create a publication that has value in itself,” she said.
The 52-page fall edition of the magazine (which is printed on high-quality glossy stock and is also available as a digital version) has features on Port Metro Vancouver, a malting elevator manager, and custom combiner; news articles on topics such as harvest sampling, production, and marketing; and columns, including ones by Steve and Skierka.
The magazine is part of “a fine-tuned communications program,” said Sawyer.
“The costs are going down all the time,” he said. “Our advertising revenue is up to $43,000, with the ultimate goal of it being completely self-sufficient.”
Hoping to partner
And feedback on the magazine has been “nothing but positive,” said Erickson.
“The big glossy magazine, maybe that’s not in their priorities right now, but… as a producer, I like to find avenues for getting information and for getting timely information,” he said.
Neither his organization nor the wheat commission were offended by Gehl’s comments about the magazine, said Sawyer.
“We just look forward to the opportunity to work with these commissions down the road and see what they’ve been doing,” said Sawyer.
The goal is to “collaborate with these groups where it makes sense on all fronts,” added Skierka.
“We don’t have to do everything together,” she said. “Where it makes sense, we’re open to and want to work with people.”