Canola’s (mostly) excellent year | The Western Producer


Success in 2020’s farming looks different in today’s rear-view mirror.

“We planted the crop. We harvested the crop. We marketed the crop,” Bernie McClean, a Glaslyn, Sask., farmer and a new board member with the Canola Council of Canada, said in mid-March, the day after the organization’s abridged and online-only annual meeting.

That ability to operate mostly as usual in the midst of a pandemic, beset by the aftermath of a lingering drought in huge areas of Western Canada, was highlighted by a number of farmers and canola industry players as they looked back on a turbulent year.

“In a disruptive year, we saw how resilient the entire value chain can be,” said Jim Everson, CCC president, at the March 18 annual meeting.

“The industry responded to the immediate issues while remaining focused on the long-term goals.”

In all, 2020 was a good but not stellar year for Canadian canola production. Production of about 18.7 million tonnes is one of the highest in history, but not as big as one of the 20-plus million tonne record breakers of just a few years ago.

Seed exports were excellent, at 11.8 million tonnes, despite China’s blocking of shipments by Richardson and Viterra. The average of 2011 and 2012 was 8.1 million tonnes.

Processing was about 10.3 million tonnes, well above the 2011-12 average of 6.9 million tonnes.

And the production was achieved despite numerous weather challenges that saw the season begin with parched soils in some areas, floods in others, suffered a flower-killing heat wave in July, and windstorms that hit some western crops at harvest.

“2020 was an average year over all,” said Everson. “Even an average year of production was quite an accomplishment.”

The pandemic raised great anxieties among farmers and industry players, disrupting supply chains, closing borders, spurring food hoarding and undermining the world financial system.

Yet Canadian crop farming and trade stumbled through and then did exceptionally well.

Fertilizer supplies mostly arrived in time. Other crop inputs were generally available.

After a brief period of world trade paralysis, food trade resumed with incredible vigour as countries tried to bring in necessary foodstuffs and transportation systems had little else to haul.

Canadian railways set records for how much grain they were hauling, a blessed relief from the strike-disrupted and Indigenous-protest-marred period before the pandemic.

University and government agriculture department research programs initially feared shutdown or temporarily suspended, but almost all projects went ahead somehow.

Everson said the canola industry wants to ensure even temporary shortfalls in research in 2020 are recovered.

“We’re working closely with partners to ensure unused funding will be rolled over to the next program year, and that research program goals can be met despite delays,” said Everson.

The council modified its own extensive agronomy extension efforts for online delivery.

“Since we couldn’t hold field days we relied more heavily on webinars, podcasts and virtual tours,” said Everson.

To keep the industry functioning and progressing on priorities, the CCC held more than 70 virtual meetings with government officials.

A big focus now is on federal renewable fuel rules.

“We’ve been intensively lobbying the federal government to make sure that the new clean fuel standard delivers for canola,” said Everson.

For farmers, 2020 brought good production in most areas and rising prices from harvest onwards, hitting record highs over the winter. That sets many up for a cheery beginning to 2021.

“If we just got a little moisture where we don’t have it, we can hope we’ll be able to pull off another good crop,” said Charles Fossay, a Starbuck, Man., farmer who joined the CCC board in the autumn.

Farmers are going into spring feeling good after a year in which things turned out a lot better than many feared. That’s especially true if they priced their crops late and bought fertilizer early.

“For the farmers who didn’t sell all their crop off the combine, this rally has really helped the bottom line,” said Fossay.

“People are a little concerned about the high price of fertilizer.”As he looks out at forward prices, McClean feels cheery about his and his neighbours’ prospects, if they can just get some decent weather.

“If everything goes as it should, I can pencil in a profit on all of my crops,” said McClean. “It’s been a long time since I could do that.”

This year, farmers might have an extra task beyond preparing machinery, fields and inputs for spring seeding.

“A lot of people are hoping to be vaccinated before or shortly after seeding,” said Fossay.