Top Crop Manager

Features Agronomy Emerging Trends
Views from the field

Perspectives on trends, opportunities and challenges ahead for Canadian crop production.

May 27, 2024  By Carolyn King


Image courtesy of Alberta GrainsAlberta Grains chair Tara Sawyer.

Predicting the future has never been easy, and the unexpected upheavals in our world over the past few years have underlined that fact. Yet we still need to make choices based on our best guesses – and our hopes – about what lies ahead, while also trying to be ready to deal with whatever comes our way.

Top Crop Manager asked five representatives of Canadian crop grower organizations to share their thoughts on what factors and trends are likely to influence crop production over the next decade and how to capture the opportunities and overcome the challenges ahead.

Part 1: Factors and trends
The five representatives see a range of factors playing out over the next decade, including some that open up exciting possibilities and some that could pose serious challenges.

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Trade, markets, prices, costs
“I don’t think you can talk about factors or trends without talking about global trade and geopolitical factors,” says Tara Sawyer, Alberta Grains chair. “We have seen that with market pricing; we saw the high highs, and now we’re seeing that drop and rising input costs with that. Global trade definitely plays a part in our grain prices, and that is something we will always have to watch out for.”

She adds, “Consumer food demands keep shifting. Maintaining our crop production to be able to meet those changing demands is something we have to think about.”

“The number one factor is that our commodity prices will no doubt always be subject to a commodity cycle, and that we have just out-produced demand in recent years. Commodity prices are showing the effects of that,” notes Jeff Harrison, chair of Grain Farmers of Ontario (GFO).

“That, in combination with other factors – very high rates of inflation and the cost of inputs, global trade issues, global events and disruptions around the world – are all leading to production costs on our farms that are escalating at a much higher rate than in the past. We see governments taking protectionist policies. And currency values and interest rates all have huge impacts on our farms.”

Melvin Rattai, chair of the Manitoba Pulse and Soybean Growers (MPSG), is well aware that market prices will continue to strongly influence production trends. Although he can’t predict those prices, he says, “We know there is demand for soybeans and pulses so the prices hopefully will remain fairly stable or improve.”

Emerging domestic market opportunities could also influence production in some regions.

“Renewable fuels and biofuels are becoming more prominent with markets opening up. And we’re seeing right now new crush plants coming online in Saskatchewan; that change is already in progress and will keep developing,” comments Keith Fournier, chair of the Saskatchewan Canola Development Commission (SaskCanola).

“Traditionally, a large portion of our cereal and oilseed production in Atlantic Canada has been for livestock feed, but our producers have the ability to produce a high-quality product for alternative markets as well,” says Caitlin Congdon, director-at-large with the
Atlantic Grains Council (AGC).

“In the last 10 years, we’ve seen a boom in the craft beer industry in the region. As this continues and other niche markets like craft distilleries and value-added food products see the quality and value of grains and oilseeds that can be produced in their own backyard, I think some of our production can shift to fill those demands.”

Sawyer says, “In Alberta, we are seeing more value-added processing, which is a way to open up new market opportunities. We have the commodity here so why not do the processing here to add to our export portfolio versus just selling to have someone in another country process it?”

Weather, diseases, insects
“I think the top factor relates to our growing conditions here in Alberta and how they have changed. The weather patterns are making it challenging,” notes Sawyer. “Between the lack of moisture, too much moisture, and the stress that puts on the farmers and the crops, that’s definitely affecting our profitability.”

“Some of the buzzwords in agriculture these days include sustainability, regenerative ag, and resilience to climate change. Producers in the Atlantic region are feeling the effects of climate change every day as we deal with unpredictable weather patterns that wreak havoc on our already short growing season and make conditions for disease and pest development even more prevalent,” says AGC’s Congdon.

“The last several years have really been a test of that resilience, but producers are rising to the occasion by exploring new practices or changing the definition of what makes a ‘successful’ crop or rotation.”

SaskCanola’s Fournier says, “Some factors are always with us, including the weather. Parts of Saskatchewan have had drought for three or four years, and we’ve gone through sessions of wet. Over the next decade, weather is still going to be a factor. The stresses of diseases and insects come and go, and those are also factors that we will be dealing with over the coming years.”

Policies, people, research
Fournier thinks regulatory/policy considerations could also affect production practices. “Thinking back to last year with the lambda-cy issue [the Pest Management Regulatory Agency’s decision regarding lambda-cyhalothrin], there could be other products we can’t use in the future. Those types of issues will be with us going forward, building on pressures from consumers but also policies of the government, affecting our use of fertilizers or other crop inputs.”

Another issue Sawyer sees is the aging farmer demographic and farm succession. “We’re seeing diverse stories about what succession planning looks like for people. Sometimes it is someone in the next generation of the family or perhaps a nephew or other relative. Or it might be a relationship the family has built with a kid who works for them who didn’t come from an ag background. So, succession planning and what that looks like is going to change a bit.”

The ongoing role of agricultural research and innovation is viewed as a crucial factor by our respondents, particularly in taking advantage of opportunities and dealing with challenges over the next decade. So, those views are presented in the next section.

Part 2: Seizing opportunities, overcoming hurdles
Our respondents identify a variety of strategies for dealing with our changing world over the next
decade.

Enhancing sustainability and public trust
Several of the representatives see sustainable agriculture practices as a valuable element in facing the
future, from a couple of angles.

“Farming practices are always evolving, but I think we will see that happen at warp speed over the next decade or so. Cereal and oilseed production will have to evolve to meet the demands of the market with regards to environmental as well as economic sustainability,” says Congdon.

“There are several programs currently that will support producers in adopting and learning about new or more sustainable practices, so that’s definitely an opportunity that we need to take advantage of. Being a small region, we don’t always have access to the latest and greatest technologies, whether that’s equipment, genetics, etcetera. So, we have to continue to push to stay current.”

She adds, “Then there’s the public perception aspect of sustainability and regenerative agriculture as well. Producers have the challenge of not only adopting new practices or dialing in existing ones, but also educating consumers about what it all means.”

“As farmers, we’ve got to make sure that we’re using the best management practices and following proper rotations so we don’t end up, for instance, losing blackleg resistance or clubroot resistance because that will then just set us back,” notes Fournier.

“We’ve also got to keep investing in improving public trust. If the public doesn’t trust that we’re growing healthy food and in an environmentally sustainable and safe way, it will be difficult for us to do what we do best.”

Sawyer comments, “We already execute a lot of sustainable practices like crop rotations, conservation tillage, no-till, integrated pest management that don’t always get the recognition that they should, even though sustainability remains a priority for us. Canadian farmers pride themselves on being leaders in sustainability, and we’re always looking for ways to improve on what we’re already doing.”

However, she would also like the government to showcase the positive contributions that Canadian farmers are already making on the sustainability front. “Internationally, we are recognized for our high-quality grain and our practices, but I sometimes think that message is not fully translated to our domestic consumers. They just hear the government wanting us to reduce carbon and hit their targets. I think the government needs to talk more about what we are already doing that is sustainable.”

Research and innovation
“We need continued investment in developing more resilient crop varieties adapted to western Canadian growing conditions and pest pressures. But we also need more research investment into cropping practices because that is one way that we’re enhancing our productivity. And it is how we can show some of our sustainability because of how we care for our soil health, how we manage our water, crop nutrition, that is all part of that continuing research investment,” says Sawyer.

“We also need to continue to invest in tools and technologies that will increase our stability, our efficiency, and help Alberta farmers continue to be profitable – that’s key – while being environmentally sustainable.” That includes precision agriculture and other
innovations that will help in dealing with the issues faced by everyday farmers right now as well as looking ahead towards long-term opportunities.

Adopting such advances can bring financial challenges. She says, “Yes, we want to improve our efficiencies and the efficiency of our crop inputs, but the costs have to make sense.”

MPSG’s Rattai sees a similar challenge for pulse and soybean producers who are interested in some of the new high-tech equipment that could improve yields and increase efficiencies. “As we upgrade our equipment over the next stretch, we have to figure out how the carbon tax rebate will work for purchases of equipment that will reduce our carbon footprint. How to access those rebates is not very clear.”

He is excited about advances through crop breeding. “There are new soybean varieties coming out that are more suited to the different amounts of rainfall and different frost-free days in different parts of Manitoba. On the pulse side, new varieties are coming out that farmers will be able to pick from over the next few years too.”

“I think agricultural research is essential to help producers manage the risks associated with things like initiating new practices or trying new input products. The Atlantic Grains Council has a strong research program that has really been led by what producers in the region want to know and are interested in,” says Congdon.

“This consists of both small plot research conducted by our Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and academic partners as well as field-scale work through our On-Farm Agronomy and Yield Enhancement Network (YEN) programs. Since the YEN was launched in the Maritimes in 2019, we’ve seen an increase in the average provincial yields for winter wheat, and not just for those participating in the program.

“This type of program allows producers to participate in research on their own farms and also feeds into a massive dataset that researchers and agronomists can use to figure out where we need to concentrate research and knowledge transfer efforts. As the YEN expands into soybeans for the 2024 season, I think that we will continue to gain valuable information at the farm level that will continue to help drive production and allow producers to maximize efficiency and sustainability.”

“Research and all the different ways that we collaborate to do research will be an important part of the puzzle in driving yield for farmers, to maintain that yield trajectory that we have started to expect,” says GFO’s Harrison. “Research on hybrids and market development and yield – those are all going to be important. Of course, that always has a catch: the more yield we produce, the more supply we produce, and that can have a negative effect on markets.”

Fournier notes the valuable role of crop-related research at universities and other public research facilities across Saskatchewan as well as life science companies. That research includes developing better crop varieties to help growers keep ahead of the game on things like changing disease and insect problems and developing more efficient practices for managing fertilizers, land and water.

He also highlights the importance of ongoing investment in research by government, private companies and producers themselves through levy dollars.

Sawyer emphasizes the value of continuing to collaborate with other provinces and the need for more funding to help execute these initiatives. She adds, “It would be nice to see more funding available towards national and even international research collaborations within the agriculture industry. While the collaboration is there, any additional funding would be incredibly beneficial. Innovation helps us all and we have a huge world to feed.”

Markets and trade
Research can also help in capturing market opportunities. Fournier gives the example of developing canola varieties with increased seed oil content for the biofuel/renewable fuel market. And Rattai is interested in pulse and soybean varieties that can meet the specifications of particular export markets.

In particular, he points to an exciting opportunity for Manitoba growers in identity-
preserved (IP) soybeans. “When I went on a trade mission to Thailand and Japan this year, I saw a big demand in those countries for IP soybeans that are good quality. I think in our province, we can grow the quality they are looking for. That’s a market that we have never even really tapped yet. We’ll have to work with our soybean seed suppliers and with the people that market the soybeans to capture that extra value.”

Fournier sees the benefits of having some domestic market options, especially when international trade problems crop up. “The markets opening up here – the biofuels and renewable fuels and the new crush plants – can reduce the impacts of situations like we had a few years ago with China’s market access restrictions for canola seed.”

Harrison emphasizes that predicting opportunities and challenges around policy and trade will be tough. “We have federal, provincial, and municipal elections all happening in the next three years. Our closest neighbor and our biggest competitor, the United States, have their election in the fall of 2024. Our biggest competitor is operating under an extension of their U.S. Farm Bill,” he says.

“The job of a farmer to utilize a crystal ball is going to be even more difficult going forward to identify trends and be able to predict the path of currency values – as currencies fluctuate, they can make our inputs cost more or less – and the timing of them to be able to inventory when needed as lower price cycles hit.”

Sawyer says, “I was on a trade mission in January and I can tell you it is key that we continue to engage in new crop missions with our export markets. I witnessed firsthand how important it was to have that personal connection with the people who want to buy our grain.”

She adds, “We also need our government to help reduce some of the barriers in the export market to help us grow and develop with those markets. Some really great new markets are coming open where we need to foster relationships.”

Atlantic Canada is in a slightly different situation. “We’re a small region, so individually it’s tough to compete with larger production areas or even make it worthwhile to explore some markets,” notes Congdon. “But I think what makes us unique and can be a strength in Atlantic Canada is working together as a region toward a common goal.”

Although we can’t be sure about what will be coming our way, Canadian farmers’ innovativeness, resilience, and care of the land will help in tackling whatever the future brings.


Our five interviewees and their commodity organizations

Tara Sawyer, Alberta Grains chair, farms near Acme, Alta. Alberta Grains (an amalgamation of Alberta Wheat and Alberta Barley) is a farmer-directed organization that represents the interests of and serves as the single voice for the more than 18,000 wheat and barley producers in the province.

Keith Fournier, chair of the Saskatchewan Canola Development Commission (SaskCanola), farms near Lone Rock, Sask. SaskCanola is a grower-led organization serving 17,000 Saskatchewan canola producers.

Melvin Rattai, chair of the Manitoba Pulse and Soybean Growers (MPSG), farms near Beausejour, Man. MPSG is directed by producers and represents farmers in Manitoba who grow pulses including edible beans, peas, lentils, chickpeas, faba beans and soybeans.

Jeff Harrison, chair of Grain Farmers of Ontario (GFO), farms with his family in Quinte West, Ont. GFO is the province’s largest commodity organization, representing Ontario’s 28,000 barley, corn, oat, soybean and wheat farmers.

Caitlin Congdon, director-at-large with the Atlantic Grains Council (AGC), is a field crops specialist with Perennia Food and Agriculture. The producer-run AGC represents grain and oilseed producers in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador.

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