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Customer complaints about wheat a red flag

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On one hand, an international wire service story saying customers aren't happy with how Canadian wheat is baking up is bad news for this country's wheat-export industry.

On the other, the industry can take comfort in the fact a customer complaint about Canadian wheat quality is rare enough that it becomes news in the same vein as a "man-bites-dog" scenario.

But the Reuters news story, based on comments by industry officials at the recent Canada Grains Council meeting, coincides with some industry-wide soul-searching about how best to maintain Canada's reputation for selling quality wheat.

Some, including federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, are pushing for changes that would loosen the parameters for determining which varieties should be grown in Canada, in the hope of attracting private-sector investment in wheat breeding and giving farmers quicker access to new, higher-yielding varieties.

Others, including Canada's millers, the Canadian Grain Commission, exporters and major farm groups counter that any yield gains might be moot if Canada's reputation for consistent quality is destroyed in the process. They argue Canada should be more focused on maintaining its disciplined approach to assessing the merit of new varieties.

After all, Canadian producers are farther away from major markets than most of their competitors. They also have a shorter, cooler growing season.

In the midst of this debate, China's state-owned agricultural buying agency (COFCO) and some European buyers are saying flour made from Canada's flagship Canada Western Red Spring (CWRS) wheat in recent years hasn't been as reliable in their bread-baking processes. Their concerns centre on gluten strength, a function of protein quality, which helps bread rise and keep its shape during baking.

Earl Geddes, the chief executive officer of the Canadian International Grains Institute, which offers training and technical expertise to export customers buying Canadian grains, pulses and oilseeds, said in an interview the technical problems customers are experiencing are easily managed with advice on how to tweak their processes.

What needs to be determined, however, is what's causing these inconsistencies. Canada has traditionally staked its reputation for quality not just on supplying high-protein wheat, but on supplying wheat that performs consistently in baking processes shipload after shipload, year after year.

Delivering on that promise is no small feat, given there are 74 varieties of wheat in the CWRS class, and they're grown in a host of different microclimates across the Prairies. Before those varieties were approved for registration, which makes them legal to grow and deliver in the CWRS class, they underwent three years of trials to determine whether their quality characteristics fit the narrow parameters of the class, whether they were susceptible to common diseases and how well they performed for the farmer.

The proposed changes would allow any variety to be registered. Quality testing would occur after the fact and only to determine where it fits in the classification system. Disease resistance and agronomic performance testing would be voluntary.

Wheat quality, particularly protein and gluten strength, are functions of many factors, including the variety, soil conditions, how much fertilizer farmers use and the weather.

"Any action we take becomes important to our brand equity," Geddes said, noting that is especially true when customers are adjusting to dealing with buyers besides the Canadian Wheat Board.

How Canada manages the registration of new varieties going forward needs to be viewed in that context.

Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email:

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 13, 2013 B7

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