When you do a job well for a long time, it can sometimes go unnoticed — people simply get used it. That’s why every once in a while it’s good to take a step back and see things with fresh eyes.
Agricultural research, for instance — just gets done. New varieties come out regularly, new insights into pest management or cropping systems are introduced consistently.
And while farmers are certainly aware of organizations which sustain agricultural research in Canada, such as the Western Grain Research Foundation, it might be surprising for many to discover just how much effort, thought, planning and focus are required to keep such an organization responsive, nimble, forward-thinking and above all, relevant to farmers’ needs.
Since its inception in 1981, WGRF has had a hand in the development of hundreds of wheat and barley varieties, not to mention other grains, oilseeds and pulses, and in related crop production research. The sheer volume is impressive: over $183 million in breeding and crop research, more than 600 research projects funded, more than 280 wheat and barley varieties developed for western Canadian farmers.
The transition of WCD (Western Canadian Deduction) check-off dollars from WGRF to provincial commissions had some wondering what it would mean for continued WGRF-funded research like this. Executive director Garth Patterson is here to tell you it’s all good.
Better than good, in fact. With a new strategic plan, a newly focused vision and mission (see at bottom), WGRF is ready to embark on the next 40 years funding vital crop and agronomic research to benefit western Canadian growers.
“For farmers, we’re the only organization that’s western Canadian and focused on cropping systems as one of our priority research areas,” says Patterson. “We’re going to be here to fund research over the long term and our board is focused on having a sustainable fund to support that vision.”
Making WCD work for all
The WCD transition was just the latest in a long line of one-time or transitional funding arrangements for the WGRF. “This was planned,” says Patterson. “This all started back in 2012 when the Canadian Wheat Board was disbanded and time was needed to make arrangements.”
In a nutshell, when the CWB’s single-desk system was eliminated in 2012, the Western Canadian Deduction (WCD) was created to ensure wheat and barley check-off dollars would continue to be collected and used for variety development. It was designed to be temporary, a five-year program that would give provincial grain commissions enough time to get processes and agreements in place to take over the responsibility for funding wheat and barley variety development. “That transition of these check-offs occurred in August 2017, seamlessly,” Patterson says.
WGRF began investing check-off dollars in 1995 to establish core wheat and barley research agreements with the Universities of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba as well as Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. After the transition, everyone wanted to see these agreements continue.
“We started working with the commissions about four years ago,” Patterson says. “Step one was for us to renew the core wheat and barley research agreements. We did that in 2015 and they’ll start expiring at the end of 2019 through to March of 2020. The next step was working with the commissions to get everything in place to take over those research agreements, and we’ll continue to work closely with them going forward.”
Ushering in a new era
With the WCD transition behind them, WGRF has a renewed focus on funding commitments in Western Canada. A new vision, mission and strategic plan and research priorities were rolled out in April of this year. “More a tweak rather than a change,” Patterson says. “We’re still very much focused on western Canadian grain farmers and their profitability.
“We have an increased emphasis on use of the Endowment Fund, and have confirmed our commitment to maintain it as a long-term fund for research, and we’ve clarified our research priorities,” he says.
Terry Young, a farmer from Lacombe, Alta., and current chair of WGRF’s board of directors, is excited about those priorities. “Ours is a defined focus on what’s going to help the farmer,” he says, explaining that WGRF has identified variety development and crop production as the two priority research areas.
Those priorities will be applied to research on 15 crops in all: five core crops (wheat, barley, canola, lentil and pea) and 10 intermediate crops (winter cereals, oats, corn, chickpea, fababean, flax, mustard, sunflower and canary seed). Both single-crop and whole-farm integrated multi-crop studies are eligible for funding.
“We have to do research on these intermediate crops because, in the end, we still are an exporting nation and if something takes off with one of those crops, we need to be ready,” Young says.
He’s also enthusiastic about an increased focus on technology and knowledge transfer, a stated goal of the new strategic plan. “We need to make sure the research out there doesn’t sit on the shelf, that it gets to farmers,” Young says. “Extension is very important to us.”
Both he and Patterson point to WGRF’s support of Field Heroes.ca (which promotes the economic impact of beneficial insects and insecticide management techniques to protect them) and Canadiangronomist.ca (which translates “science-speak” into accessible agronomic information) as important tech and knowledge transfer initiatives.
The power of the Endowment Fund
WGRF has worked very diligently to build the Endowment Fund into a sustainable funding source for decades to come. “We can sustain about $6 million per year in research funding,” Patterson says. In fact, funding commitments from the Endowment Fund currently total $48 million, which represents 34 per cent of the fund — the future looks secure indeed.
And don’t forget that much of what WGRF puts into a project can be used to leverage dollars from other sources, such as the Canadian Agricultural Partnership (CAP), which has replaced the federal government’s Growing Forward 2 program. In 2018, WGRF partnered with CAP, participating in five of its agri-science research clusters, and leading the Integrated Crop Agronomy Cluster. Investment in CAP totals more than $6.4 million and supports 44 research projects in integrated crop agronomy, wheat, barley, organic and diverse field crops.
The Endowment Fund also supports a scholarship program for graduate-level agricultural researchers at the Universities of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. “It’s part of building our agricultural research capacity for the future,” Patterson says, adding this is important to WGRF.
So important that five years ago, WGRF commissioned a study into the state of agronomic research capacity in Western Canada. It revealed major gaps, existing and impending, in the region’s publicly funded network for agronomy research — both in terms of a lack of people and a decline in facilities and equipment.
“The board has approved $28 million to enhance public research capacity,” Patterson says. “Phase one targets agronomy research capacity at the Universities of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, which is near completion. Phase two will focus on infrastructure capacity to support variety development and crop production research.”
WGRF began when 12 farm organizations saw a one-time opportunity to create a research organization that was farmer-centred. The world is not what it was then, but one thing hasn’t changed: “It’s Prairie-wide, producer-invested and producer-directed research,” says Young. And this will always be WGRF’s main strength.
“I would say we’ve shown over the last 38 years that we’re here for the future with a sustainable fund,” Patterson says. “The western Canadian approach is healthy and alive.”
A renewed focus for WGRF
WGRF has always taken its lead from the grassroots. Insights from members, staff, directors and stakeholders were used to develop WGRF’s new strategic plan, including the new vision and mission statements.
- Vision: Profitable and sustainable western Canadian grain farmers.
- Mission: Producers directing investment in crop research to benefit western Canadian grain farmers.