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SeCan at 40

Born in 1976, is SeCan living up to its promise to deliver better, more cost-effective genetics by supporting public research?

In the days leading up to 1976, new public sector seed varieties were few and far between, as Ray Askin recalls things. Askin, who grows seed at Portage la Prairie and is today’s president of the Manitoba Seed Growers Association also remembers it as a time marred by disorganization.

“SeCan gave a structured format for seed producers, and funds returned to plant breeders through royalties encouraged more varieties to be produced,” Askin says of the breakthrough when the Canadian Seed Trade Association succeeded in getting SeCan off the ground that year.

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Askin remains a strong supporter. SeCan, he says, is a better system for commercial growers, seed growers and end-users. “SeCan has grown through the years,” Askin says. “It is an affordable, efficient organization to distribute new varieties to farmers.”

But SeCan has also evolved along the way. Staffa, Ont. seed grower Lorne Fell, who has been involved for 39 of SeCan’s 40 years, recalls there were about 35 directors at the start, including grower, trade and government representatives. There were also ongoing debates, with plant breeders pushing for a larger share. Public breeders also released varieties for exclusive sale by larger private sector interests, leaving farmers without an opportunity to get the new varieties other than growing under contract with one of the bigger companies.

About 15 years after its inception, SeCan whittled down the number of directors, including the government representative.

SeCan’s portfolio has changed too. Askin says cereals are an important part of the western Canadian offerings from SeCan, although in earlier years, canola, peas and forages were big sellers as well, and in recent years, soybeans have also become a vital component of the company’s portfolio, particularly in Eastern Canada.

During that period, SeCan has continued returning money back to public sector breeding and research, with more than $97 million in funding, according to Fell, based on sales of more than 480 varieties in 27 crops.

“It provides competition in the marketplace, as well,” says Fell, whose son Roger is one of the principals with Rosebank Seed Farms near Staffa, Ont. “It’s been a changing world in the last 40 years, and SeCan seems to have done a pretty good job of keeping up and getting ahead of these new developments.”

Insiders say much of its longevity is due to SeCan’s success in cultivating a strong internal culture, based on co-operation and collaboration. It’s always difficult to quantify, but the point was independently raised by every source that Country Guide talked to for this story.

There’s also a recognition that, somehow, a balance needs to be maintained among industry stakeholders and members, particularly in addressing the changing landscape going forward.

Scoring big — OAC Bayfield

Perhaps SeCan’s greatest success story was born in 1985 when plant breeders Jack Tanner and Wally Beversdorf at the University of Guelph made the cross that led to OAC Bayfield, eventually registered as a new soybean variety in 1993 and launched for commercial sales in 1995.

Bayfield’s longevity is almost mythic, still in demand after 10 years on the market. And since then, its genetics have been bred into two more generations: OAC Champion, OAC Wallace and OAC Kent as the first progeny, and OAC Lakeview and OAC Heritage as the second.

In fact, though, OAC Bayfield seed is still being sold to companies in Russia, putting it solidly into its third decade of production and sales.

Since its release, approximately 45,000 tonnes of OAC Bayfield seed have been sold, with a value of more than $1.2 million to the soybean research program at the University of Guelph.

Present and future

Through all those years, the SeCan brand witnessed extraordinary change in the ag sector, especially in the past 10 years. This goes beyond the advent of biotech traits and technologies; the profile of agriculture is changing how farmers do their job, and is also changing not only the way they grow their crops, but the end uses that they sell them for.

Everything about agriculture today is so much more complicated than even a few years ago.

Asked to identify the biggest challenges facing agriculture today, Rick Van Laecke simply says, “Everything.”

Van Laecke is in his second year as a director with SeCan and has been a member for 10 years, right from the beginnings of his own company, Horizon Seeds, based in Courtland, Ont., and he points to farm challenges including seed and input costs, the availability of new technologies, breeding for biotic or abiotic stresses, enhanced traits demanded by end-users.

“It’s all of these and more,” Van Laecke says, and growers are challenged to understand all of this new information, which means SeCan — as well as the rest of the industry — has a significant role to provide information and value in the seed in that context.

Although he works on Horizon’s own corn brand with breeding and development, Van Laecke rates his association with SeCan as a priority.

“We’re happy with the product line coming from SeCan right now, and if you can’t improve it, why change it?” says Van Laecke, who likes what he sees from the company. “It’s a unique opportunity, as an independent seed company with a corn brand, to be able to be a member and access this product line and all the support you get out of SeCan — it’s a great fit.

“To me, working with SeCan brings the face of trust,” says Van Laecke. “We’re providing the source of seed that in most cases, was actually grown by the member and supported by the member — the member knows that seed. And because they can go to a neighbour or a customer or a relation and say, ‘I’ve grown this and it’s good’ — I think that’s what SeCan brings to the grower — it’s that confidence.”

Van Laecke also sees another fundamental difference that SeCan has turned into an advantage. Each year, the large seed companies turn out as many as a dozen new corn hybrids and the same number of soybean varieties as their strategy for growing market share.

But the public sector has been able to put a greater share of its focus on enhancing stress tolerance and disease and pest resistance.

The need to recoup funding isn’t as driven in the public sector as in the private, Van Laecke believes, and he sees that as a huge plus, both for SeCan and its grower customers.

“As a spinoff,” he adds, “the public sector breeding programs and the money they generate are educating tomorrow’s ag professionals, the vast majority of whom will end up in the private sector,” he says. “But they’re educated by funds from that public sector.”

Expanding SeCan’s reach

When SeCan first arrived, its focus was almost exclusively on cereals and other traditionally Western Canada crops. Then it began branching into other crops and other regions, including soybeans for Eastern Canada. That expansion has also created opportunities in areas where they were limited in the past.

Reuben Stone, a new SeCan member, manages Valley Bio, a diverse seed operation in Cobden, Ont., northeast of Ottawa. Like Van Laecke, Stone says the value that SeCan has provided, both to his own operation and to his customers, is undeniable.

“We’re new entrants into this industry, and we have access to a lot of this material, with a lot of mentorship and a lot of support around us in the organization,” Stone says. “That’s pretty important in an industry that’s becoming top heavy. SeCan has such a broad base.”

Stone, who operates Valley Bio with his wife, Keanan, notes their connection to SeCan also brings a much closer relationship to research. Valley Bio’s primary crop is industrial hemp and his relationship with SeCan allows him to diversify his offerings to area growers, including soybeans and cereal crops. From that relationship, there’s the opportunity to talk directly with researchers and gain an understanding of why a variety is appropriate. They tailor the genetics to specific needs of the members and their grower customers, and Stone says that makes it the closest relationship a commercial grower can have to actual seed development.

It’s also worth a tip of the cap, he says, to the staff at SeCan for what he calls “a small team” to be able to pull together what they do on a daily or weekly basis. But the challenge remains to stay competitive and within reach of what the private sector companies are doing — and to do this in an era where government funding can be reduced or challenged with little notice.

Add to that the pace of change in the technology, where the technical innovation involved in the equipment used to mark DNA requires more investment, as well as the acumen and awareness needed to make the most efficient use of it.

There’s also a considerable alteration in the overall relationship that agriculture has with the general public, says Stone. And that’s something that more growers must prepare themselves for, in terms of changing not just their practices but their mindsets as well.

“The Canadian Wheat Board and the changes we’ve seen there, the potential for changes to the quota system in dairy and poultry — farmers need to be aware of the way the markets are changing and that we’re producing food-grade items or industrial items, and what are the end uses?” poses Stone. “When we look at the climate stresses that we have, just this year, a lot of it’s related to production practices on farm — irrigation, no till, organic matter in the soil — all have a big bearing. What can the seed trade bring to that? It could be a lot, and maybe not all in terms of traits but in different crop types. And that’s seed trade’s challenge as well.”

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