When Lynn Jacobson went to Asia on a trade mission, he found his preconceived notions were completely wrong.
“My preconception of what society was like over there was completely changed,” said the grain farmer from Enchant.
“I thought they were 10 to 15 years behind us, but in some ways they’re 10 to 15 years ahead of us. Producers don’t realize that until they have travelled there.”
Jacobson, a director for the Alberta Wheat Commission, recently spent two weeks in Japan, South Korea, China and Indonesia with representatives from the Canadian Grain Commission and the Canadian International Grains Institute.
The missions, now in their second year, are part of the new world order formed after the dissolution of the Canadian Wheat Board.
“There was a big hole in customer information and what Canadian crop was out there,” said Jacobson. “No one was making visits and the millers complained they hadn’t seen anyone in a long time.
“My impression was that the millers were very happy to see us. They really wanted to know what our crop was like. It’s important to get the Canadian crop out there, especially the statistics. This is the information that the millers live and die by and what they buy on.”
The mission uses a “Team Canada approach,” said Bentley producer Kevin Bender who participated in a week-long mission to Europe in November.
“We present what each organization does and what we do. Really, it’s Canadian wheat we’re selling and we work together as a team,” said Bender, a director of the Alberta Wheat Commission and Cereals Canada.
It’s important to have producers on these trade missions, said Magrath farmer Gary Stanford, who is president of the Grain Growers of Canada.
“Farmers will ask more questions and people will ask more questions of farmers,” said Stanford, who travelled to Asia on last year’s New Crop Mission.
Buyers see farmers as independent, and they’re keen to learn more about how they produce their crops, he said.
While abroad, Jacobson and Bender gave several presentations, showing pictures of their farms and explaining the reality of grain farming in Canada. Bender even showed pictures of the September snowfall and its aftermath, so customers would have a better understanding of the challenges faced by producers.
“Customers are very interested in our production methods and what inputs we use,” added Jacobson.
He had many one-on-one conversations with buyers about cropping, production practices, equipment, and harvest techniques. He also told customers that wheat is just one option in the rotation, and prices need to be good for farmers to grow wheat.
The Canadian grain transportation system was also a hot topic, and Jacobson said he assured them there was a lot of transparency about the system, and urged them to see for themselves how much information is available.
Food safety was of great importance to all Asian customers, particularly the Chinese; Italians asked about durum supply; and British and German buyers were concerned about mycotoxins and soy contamination in wheat, said Bender.
Some of the main varieties of hard red spring have been considered subpar by the European buyers and they were pleased to learn these varieties are declining in acreage.
“I think we need to get knowledge out to the growers that these varieties are not doing well,” said Bender. “I know they’ve been popular among growers, but they’ve hurt our reputation. We’d like to encourage grain companies to put premiums on crops that the buyers want.”
Buyers have been critical of Harvest, Lillian and Unity because of poor gluten strength, he noted, adding all three have been declining in acreage. He also said one miller he met on the mission made a point of praising Glenn CWRS.
Bender said another key takeaway was how much personal connections matter to European buyers, while Jacobson said he came home with new enthusiasm for the potential of the Asian market.
“They are hungry for products, and they have more and more dollars to spend. The potential for future sales is huge.”
Both men will share lessons learned from their overseas missions at presentations in Canada.
And Team Canada’s New Crop Missions aren’t over. Mundare producer Greg Porozni, president of Cereals Canada, will visit the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia this month.