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Building interest for small grain cereals

This new initiative hopes to grow demand for small grains by recognizing their environmental benefits

It’s everything growers could ask for. Imagine market demand that’s driven by acknowledging the healthfulness of the crops you grow and their environmental and sustainability benefits, plus a premium return on investment so you can afford to plant even more. How many times have growers wanted this kind of market pull in exchange for excellence in production?

The Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario (EFAO) is trying to make that scenario a reality with its Small Grains Program, a two-year pilot project to encourage growers to add more cereal options to their rotations. The program will take effect next year with eligible growers receiving $40 per acre for up to 100 acres, with the option of adding wheat, spelt, oats, barley, rye or triticale, followed by a cover crop that includes a legume in order to qualify.

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Administrators with the EFAO are finalizing the list of eligible growers for the coming year and then they will oversee the project to ensure its criteria are met.

But there’s more. The program’s focus goes beyond achieving longer rotations and environmental sustainability. It aims to achieve a change in mindset too because there’s a second goal: to entice food manufacturers to engage with farmers to produce small grains and to acknowledge their efforts with a premium.

The really good news is that the model for this type of program already exists, and that it is successful and has resulted in increased demand and security of markets for growers in the U.S. Midwest. The EFAO and its staff members have worked closely with the Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) and realized they didn’t have to reinvent the wheel to generate interest and a small incentive to encourage growers to try this program.

“The thought here was that many growers know the benefits of an extended rotation, but it’s hard to make changes in farming,” says Dr. Sarah Hargreaves, research director with the EFAO. She earned her doctorate from Iowa State University and has worked closely with PFI staff, learning from their success and modelling the Ontario program accordingly. “This was a way to say, ‘We have a little bit of money to offer — per acre — and a lot of farmer-to-farmer support.’ If someone is interested, this is the nudge or the help they need.”

The inclusion of a cover crop or a legume crop after a small grains crop is a key condition of the EFAO program. photo: Supplied

Hargreaves and Maureen Balsillie, field crop co-ordinator with the EFAO, have been planning the Small Grains Program with an initial 500 acres. As it turns out, that’s exactly what the PFI program started with, although it has now grown toward 10,000 acres in a state that’s better known for growing corn.

A different approach

It’s true that 10,000 acres of small grains doesn’t sound all that impressive, yet the program in Iowa has attracted the attention of consumer products giants Unilever and PepsiCo, along with Oatly, a manufacturer of oat-based beverages and food items. According to Hargreaves, the companies began tapping into the PFI program, linking to farmers and providing forward contracting opportunities for those wanting to participate.

It’s a sign that some processors are looking to add accountability and to recognize sustainable production methods and reduced environmental impacts. Many growers are doing all they can to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce their reliance on fertilizer inputs, but that’s usually not enough to lengthen rotations in an agriculture where the pricing dynamic is structured to corn and soybeans.

“Adding a small grain and a legume cover or forage crop into the rotation reduces fossil fuel energy use, which is exciting to farmers because it gets their cost of production down,” says Hargreaves. “It’s also an opportunity for the industry that’s looking to partner with ag producers who are having a positive impact on the environment, and shows that agriculture is a big part of the solution to climate change. We believe small grains fit in very nicely with that.”

Oats is an example of a small grain that may attract the attention — and premiums — of food manufacturers. photo: Supplied

The building of a price premium is another in this “full-cycle” system, and Hargreaves concedes it can be challenging, given all of the moving parts in a commodity market model. Yet the burden can’t fall to the farmers: the industry can’t tell them to go out and grow a crop they can’t sell for a price that covers their costs.

“We need a proof of concept, and a lot of times with programs like this, it’s best to start small because of the kind of administrative wheelhouse to get it going,” says Hargreaves. “It’s funded for two years and we’re working to continue with industry partners to develop long-term funding, to see what that looks like.”

That’s why PFI’s example offers Hargreaves and Balsillie a sense of optimism. Both concede that building market access will be the make-or-break for this project and any success they’re hoping to bring. The knowledge base for growing cereals like wheat or oats is already in place — it’s the “farm for today” mentality that’s driven many growers to opt out of cereals in the past 10 years. Yet continued research by Drs. David Hooker and Bill Deen from the University of Guelph provides plenty of evidence for the benefits of including cereals in the rotation, including yield boosts in subsequent corn and soybean crops.

But it’s not just winter wheat or oats that are options for growers; there’s a renewed sense of interest in all cereals.

“There definitely seems to be a growing interest in that area,” says Balsillie. “They might be something people have never considered growing so we wanted to make sure those two options were available.”

It will be Balsillie’s job in the coming year to engage in discussions with processors, millers and food manufacturers, and to continue to build on conversations between growers and industry stakeholders. The goal with that kind of connectivity is to help growers with their decision-making process and to provide a forum for open dialogue with the downstream users.

“We think that with the market access and this network, perhaps we can offer growers more than just the payments,” adds Balsillie. “Certainly the payment helps.”

Another benefit to working with the EFAO comes out of its Small Grains Network. In addition to the pilot project, anyone interested in growing small grains can join the network free of charge. It’s a farmer-to-farmer forum, and Balsillie will also try to arrange for speakers like Hooker or Deen and presentations from experienced Iowa growers who can talk about their efforts to establish new markets.

“The big difference that we hope our program can provide is the Small Grains Network,” she says, noting that they’re hoping to schedule some field days in 2021. “That’s our big value-add which may not be available through other programs. With the payment, farmers can mitigate some of the risk and have that learning opportunity and support to ensure success in the first year. Even if they’re not eligible for the program, they’re encouraged to join the network which includes monthly shared learning calls, mentorship and field days.”

For growers looking for other ways to fund some of their diversification bids, programs are available through other industry groups such the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association (OSCIA), including cover crop programs.

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