It was in 2012 that the first complaints began to trickle in. Buyers long accustomed to high-quality Canadian wheat started expressing disappointment in the quality of their shipments.
From nearly a tonne of peas in a 25-tonne wheat shipment to lower-than-expected protein levels and grade divergences, over the next few years the first quiet questions grew to a chorus of concern.
Daryl Beswitherick, who is in charge of quality assurance for the Canadian Grain Commission, told Country Guide the message has definitely got through.
“We’ve heard from our international customers pretty loud and clear over the past three or four years that the gluten strength of our CWRS wheat class is too low,” Beswitherick said.
CWRS is the acronym for Canadian Western Red Spring wheat, the world-renowned bread wheat that first made Prairie wheat fields famous.
If you’ve ever chewed a few kernels of wheat, you know about gluten. It’s formed when water is added to wheat flour and kneaded, causing the gliadin and glutenin proteins in the flour to expand and form long strands of gluten. This sticky compound can then trap the gas from growing yeast, causing bread to rise and take on its characteristic texture.
Beswitherick says two main points contributed to the gluten strength issue coming to the forefront — weather and the combination of varieties being grown. Setting protein in wheat kernels is a delicate process — first the crop must maximize yield potential, and only after that will the crop begin to convert soil nitrogen to higher protein levels. This means higher protein in drier years, and lower protein in wetter ones such as 2013 and 2014.
However, some varieties do a better job of maintaining gluten strength than others.
“We had three varieties — Harvest, Lillian and Unity — that had become some of the most widely grown varieties in Western Canada in the CWRS class,” Beswitherwick said. “They also happen to be on the lower end of the gluten strength spectrum.”
Growers liked their yields and agronomics, and in 2011 the three made up 42 per cent of the CWRS acres in Western Canada. That dropped to 22 per cent last year, so it’s declining, but still significant.
This has led to a proposal to drop a total of 25 wheat varieties from the CWRS class and four from the Canadian Prairie Red Spring (CPRS) class on August 1, 2017 (see below). That proposal is in the consultation process now, with the grain industry currently responding to the initial proposal.
However, this move only addresses gluten strength. Other challenges still appear to remain, including the reality that the Canadian marketing system has evolved and some of the benefits that buyers got used to may be hard to replicate.
For example, there’s the issue of how grain is drawn to port and boats are filled. In the days of a single sales desk, the CWB was the sole wheat exporter and it drew at will from all stocks at the port elevators owned by the various companies. Those elevators represented grain drawn from many points across Western Canada, meaning the shipment tended to represent the average quality of the whole Prairie crop.
These days the various grain companies only draw from the stocks of their own terminals, which in turn only represent those areas where they have a collection network. This tends to exaggerate the effect of any regional production differences.
“The grain companies definitely don’t have quite the same blending capabilities,” Beswitherick says. “The CWB would draw from five or six terminal elevators to fill a single ship at times, versus a single grain company that might just have one terminal it draws from.”
The process was known as “incremental loading” and at least some of the complaints are likely linked to this transition. Under the old system the CWB knew the same customer would return next year for Canadian wheat, giving them a powerful incentive to provide slightly better-than-expected quality.
One grain industry player says this realignment of expectations is only natural under the new system, and is in fact necessary. Brian Hayward headed Agricore United until it amalgamated with Saskatchewan Wheat Pool to form Viterra. He says sticking with the old system would be akin to giving away part of the value of the product.
“No other major wheat exporter in the world does this ‘incremental loading’” Hayward told Guide during a recent email exchange while he was travelling internationally. “It has a cost to shift vessels and it slows loading which is also a cost — both invisible.”
Hayward says the old way of doing business might have encouraged customer loyalty, but that loyalty came at a cost and farmers were never paid for providing better than spec quality. He says overall, the changes to the marketing system have made Canadian wheat growers more competitive, something that more than offsets any hiccups during the transition period.
“The grading system and registration system restricted farmer choice, which was an opportunity cost,” Hayward says. “All in all, Canada has to compete and use market-development tools and invest in key countries.”
Hayward also notes that the complaints were primarily coming from end-use customers outside the country, rather than from internal stakeholders.
“I do not hear a groundswell from farmers to get the CWB back into the fray,” he says. “They are there through G3 (Global Grain Group, the organization the CWB is transitioning into) and that competition is healthy for the industry.”
The CGC’s Beswitherick says the transition really represents a period of learning all around. There will be bumps along the way, but he’s confident they will be worked through, and in fact the work is already well underway.