It likely wasn’t your greatest year, but 2016 was definitely eventful

Weather was the big story but it was also a year when pulses took centre stage, 
farm groups came together like never before, and sustainable beef hit a milestone

Stepping back and looking at the year gone past is a great way to prepare for the one ahead.

For most producers, 2016 was a grind with a distinct shortage of highlight reel moments. But the world always moves forward and there were many significant changes that took place over the last 12 months.

Here are five of note.

The best years are still ahead for pulse growers

‘Past results are no guarantee of future performance.’

That standard warning from the stock market certainly applied to pulses this year as prices dropped sharply and excessive rain downgraded many Alberta pea and lentil crops to feed category.

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Poor harvests in India sent pulse prices sky high in 2015 and Alberta farmers sure noticed. According to StatsCan, they seeded 232,700 hectares of lentils — double the acreage of 2015 and five times what they planted the year before that. Peas were sown on a whopping 2.27 million hectares, 73 per cent more than in 2015.

But neither Mother Nature nor the markets co-operated — prices fell and so did the rain. There’s likely a fair number of farmers who have vowed to never grow those crops again, or at least on poor-draining fields better suited to cereals or canola. And the spread of root rot means many other fields won’t see a pulse crop for quite a while.

But while it proved to be a crummy year for growing pulses, it was a heck of a one for spreading the word about their health and environmental benefits.

Sylvan Lake farmer Allison Ammeter — Alberta’s, and perhaps, the country’s most enthusiastic booster of the crop — was excited going into the year. The United Nations designated 2016 as the International Year of Pulses (IYOP) and Ammeter predicted that shining the international spotlight on dried legumes would pay dividends for years and decades to come.

“As IYOP draws attention to big global issues like nutrition, food security, and environmental sustainability, this crop — which is a Canadian success story — is only going to get more attention, get more agronomic research, and more breeding research,” she said a year ago.

One year later, Ammeter said that IYOP “wildly exceeded all expectations.”

About 55,000 people took the Pulse Pledge — a vow to eat pulses at least once a week for 10 weeks — and social media interactions and mentions using the #lovepulses hashtag reached an astonishing 3.1 billion interactions.

“That’s unbelievable. Our goal was 750 million and we far exceeded that,” said Ammeter.

It’s a strong indicator that people are figuring out what pulses are, how to use them, and why they’re good for you.

“We have a sense that consumption has increased, but we’re waiting for the next consumer research information to come to really have hard-and-fast numbers,” said Ammeter.

But she expects growing consumer awareness will mean greater demand and more pulse acres in the province.

“Consumer demand will definitely cause more to be planted. We’ve seen that with chickpeas and hummus. Where North America used to be net exporters, now we can hardly supply the North American hummus market, which is a great problem to have.”

That’s going to happen with other pulses, too, she predicted, although a good chunk of that could be using pulse fractions in things like ravioli, chips, and even dog food.

“That is going to result in not only more demand, but also better research and better agronomics.”

Strife and anger give way to consultation

When it came to workplace health and safety, it seemed most everyone took a breath and stepped back in 2016.

The angry demonstrations and rushed passage of Bill 6 at the end of 2015 set the stage for even more bitter confrontations. But the unprecedented furor prompted the province’s farm organizations to do something equally unprecedented — form a coalition that could speak with a unified voice for virtually every producer in this big and diverse province. And so 2-1/2 dozen farm groups, representing nearly 97 per cent of producers, created the Alberta Agriculture Farm and Ranch Safety Coalition.

The new group, known as AgCoalition, wasn’t exactly thrilled with the terms of the consultation process and even less so about the province’s determination that the right to unionize would be mixed in with things such as occupational health and safety rules. But its top priority was being part of the process, and also educating non-farmers on the six committees (known as tables) that would make recommendations on specific rules and regulations that would give teeth to the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act.

The anger hasn’t gone away but demonstrations gave way to negotiations in 2016 as an unprecedented coalition of farm groups worked behind the scenes to ensure health and safety rules would work on farms.

The anger hasn’t gone away but demonstrations gave way to negotiations in 2016 as an unprecedented coalition of farm groups worked behind the scenes to ensure health and safety rules would work on farms.
photo: File

“In some areas, we did see some movement and we did get to resolutions,” Gord Winkel, AgCoalition’s interim executive director, said in November.

“In other areas, it was clearly not acceptable to the industry to move forward with certain things.

“Fortunately, the process allowed for that, and we were able to show that there was a lack of consensus and basically make the agriculture sector’s intent known.”

In the win column was an agreement that farms couldn’t function if they had to live with the rules governing hours of work and overtime that apply to other sectors. Those rules limit the workday to 12 hours with 30-minute breaks every five hours, and impose overtime after 44 hours in a week. Instead, the committee agreed, farm workers should get a minimum of four days off for every 28 days worked and families should be exempted entirely.

AgCoalition members are also being proactive when it comes to providing safety education and reminding their members that, in Winkel’s words, “If you don’t do it your way, it will get done to you.”

Still things may flare up again in the coming year.

There were heated discussions at the table on labour relations, with everyone eventually agreeing to disagree on unionization. It’s easy to imagine a push to unionize a farm, ranch, or feedlot becoming a flashpoint in the coming year. And the number of farm employee injury claims to the Workers Compensation Board were also up significantly, which raises the prospect of higher WCB premiums at a time when both grain and livestock sectors are trying to cope with lower prices.

But it’s worth remembering what, at the time, may have seemed on overly optimistic appeal from farm groups a year ago.

“While we have not been provided the opportunity to influence the process to this point, we ask for your patience and support as the work begins to design the legislation that directly affects your operation on a day-to-day basis,” Alberta Barley Commission said in a release a year ago.

“Although we understand the frustration felt by producers, we are optimistic that the upcoming consultations can be meaningful.”

The lesson from 2016? Expect the unexpected

Well, at least we didn’t have a drought — and we’ll be starting off with great soil moisture conditions.

That would sum up the optimist’s view of a year that many would rather forget. But 2016 offered a classic reminder of both Mother Nature’s ability to make a U-turn and the need to bear that in mind when making a cropping plan.

Drought was indeed on everyone’s mind as the winter that barely was came to an end and producers wondered whether the old saying, ‘seed into dust and bins will bust,’ would prove to be true in 2016. Forecasts of the warmest spring on record also prompted warnings that an invasion of grasshoppers and other pests was on its way.

But crops germinated and insect Armageddon was averted (although a plague of gophers hit some parts of the province). At one point, things looked so good, there was talk that the harvest would rival 2013’s all-time record, which raised concerns that Prairie farmers were in for a repeat of that year’s grain transportation gridlock.

And then the heavens began to open up. In June, it was ‘million-dollar rains.’ In July, ‘OK, we’re good now.’ From August onwards, it was just, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’

Of course, not all precipitation falls as rain. If you avoided a serious encounter with the Great White Combine, consider yourself lucky. Although the province didn’t set a record for hail claims last year, Agriculture Financial Services Corporation has paid out $355 million in hail claims. And no sooner had the summer hail season ended when winter made an early visit to many parts of the province with some September snow.

In the end, many producers saw their best harvest weather in November and set personal records for their longest-ever harvest season. But many, many others still have crops in the field. And it’s not just that that grain will be worth little or nothing, it also means some farmers will have to start spring in the combine before they can start seeding.

On top of all that was the fall in global grain prices.

Again the optimist can point to the low Canadian dollar as a shield, and it’s a good point — many American grain farmers are having very serious discussions in their lender’s office these days. But if oil prices continue to rebound, there will be less shielding in 2017. And huge grain and oilseed supplies around the world mean there’s little prospect of prices rising significantly any time soon.

If both looking back and looking forward seems a little depressing, remember, this is the time of year when there’s a lot of money-making advice on offer. As always, conferences and workshops will offer top-notch presentations on topics such as marketing and grain drying, as well as predictions that prove prescient (fusarium’s westward march and the threat of aphanomyces in peas were two from a year ago).

But perhaps the greatest lesson from 2016 is ‘expect the unexpected.’ And who knows? Maybe the 2013 harvest record will be broken this year and the biggest dilemma will be where to find enough storage for it all.

A golden opportunity, but will it be seized?

Wouldn’t it be nice if people were always complimenting you on your work?

That actually happened a lot to beef producers in this province in 2016.

“You are making the most advancements when it comes to sustainable beef today,” Cameron Bruett, JBS’s top sustainability official, proclaimed at the Canadian Beef Industry Conference in Calgary this summer.

Another major vote of confidence came from the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef — one of the leading forces in the whole sustainable ag movement — when it invited top industry officials from around the world to Banff. Once again, the Canadian beef sector was showered with praise.

But for all that’s been accomplished, the past year showed more needs to be done. Two stories from 2016 — one that made national headlines and another barely noticed — put this into sharp relief.

Earls Restaurants thought it was giving customers what they wanted when it decided to switch to ‘Certified Humane Beef.’ The problem, of course, was that involved getting that meat from the U.S. and that didn’t sit well with patriotic Canadian steak lovers.

But another proponent of certified beef with considerable more marketing expertise came to Alberta to say that producers can make money by giving people what they want. John Stika, president of Certified Angus Beef, told a Livestock Gentec conference that the brand’s success — more than a billion pounds of beef sold annually — stemmed from listening to what consumers want and delivering it.

Canada leads the world when it comes to sustainable beef, but creating a ‘Certified Canadian Premium Beef’ brand will take a lot of effort.

Canada leads the world when it comes to sustainable beef, but creating a ‘Certified Canadian Premium Beef’ brand will take a lot of effort.
photo: File

Could Canada do the same by positioning its beef as a premium product with the highest environmental, animal welfare, and safety standards in the world?

The pieces are there. The past year saw the successful completion of McDonald’s “verified sustainable beef” pilot, the hand-over to the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, and the launch of the VBP (Verified Beef Production) Plus program. There’s also a robust traceability network; the BIXS carcass data and information-sharing system; and an extensive body of scientific work that shows beef production on grasslands produces environmental benefits.

Putting those pieces together and creating demand for a Certified Canadian Premium Beef brand will take a lot more time and effort. However, with cattle prices once again in the doldrums, the coming year may see more people in the sector wanting to leverage the advantage that Bruett says Canadian beef has.

A tough year for AFSC, a last one for ALMA

It’s been a heck of a ride,” said chair Dave Chalack when the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency held its final Future Fair conference in October.

There was widespread disappointment (and considerable irony) that an agency created to help diversify the provincial economy should fall victim to government cost cutting prompted by the latest oil industry downturn.

The province had announced in its spring budget it would dissolve ALMA and have civil servants take over its duties — a move it said would save $8 million annually.

But Chalack, a veterinarian and president of Rocky Mountain Holsteins, argued the agency’s funding ($25 million in its last year) was money well spent. His tally was that $230 million in government funding (dispensed since 2008) had leveraged nearly triple that amount from industry for 1,400 projects that created about 15,000 jobs.

ALMA had its critics when it was created, who didn’t see the need for another government agency. But its performance won over some of them, including Alberta Beef Producers.

“It made some very good investments in projects and initiatives that will serve the industry well in the future,” said Rich Smith, ABP executive director. “It has made a difference.”

“It’s been good for agriculture and for the livestock side of the business,” added Ray Price, president of Sunterra Meats. “It was becoming a place where everybody felt they could go to get some information and possibly some support for unique Alberta products.”

The story for another government agency — Agriculture Financial Services Corp. — was a lack of information. Apparently nobody knew that large sums were being misspent until a whistleblower alerted the government.

The province’s chief internal auditor investigated and found that over a five-year period nearly $900,000 had been spent on travel, accommodations, mileage, meals, hospitality, conference fees, and other similar costs. This included limousine travel and luxury box tickets at Edmonton Oilers games and more than $340,000 on travel to meet with reinsurance companies even though the agency contracts brokers to deal with reinsurers.

The auditor’s report prompted the province to dismiss the entire board in June and suspend three top officials at the agency, including its president who was earning $670,000 annually. A trio of interim replacements is currently overseeing the agency as the slow process of appointing a new board grinds on.

About the author

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Reporter

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, she has also published two collections of poetry and a biography about a Sikh civil rights activist. Her freelance work has appeared in numerous publications across Canada.

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