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Commentary: Cereals Canada must turn its attention to governance

Organization has been immersed in great tumult among its membership.
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Most people will get a few days this summer to lounge around and read a book. If you’re involved in boards, commissions and committees, you’ll get a lot out of The Great Chair.

SASKATOON — For summer holiday reading, I’m recommending my wife read Brian Hayward’s The Great Chair.

It’s a book about proper and effective board governance, written by Hayward, the former longtime Agricore United chief executive officer and chair of a number of non-agricultural companies. My wife is the kind of person who ends up on a lot of boards and often ends up chairing them, so it seems like a constructive bit of reading for her.

I’d also recommend the book to the board and management of Cereals Canada, which has been immersed in great tumult among its membership. A large swath of its members have submitted notices of possible withdrawal from the organization, including most of the grain companies and one of the seed/pesticide companies. They won’t necessarily quit, but must give two years notice if they might, and they’ve done that.

Some of those remaining are not exactly happy with how the organization, which was created in 2020, has been operating, especially with the way its $100 million GATE project has been brought forward.

After the June 27 annual board meeting, the organization says things are patched up and there’s strong support for GATE, but clearly something went off the rails here. That’s unfortunate.

Cereals Canada has done and continues to do good and invaluable work for western Canadian farmers. It operates as a bridge between Canadian farmers and end-use customers, both with its market promotion efforts and its technical support and educational efforts, helping find and keep markets for Canadian grain.

Over the past 22 years, I’ve met buyers, millers and processors from around the world at the Canadian International Grains Institute and now Cereals Canada. I’ve met millers at conferences and meetings who mention they were in Winnipeg once — at CIGI. They always recall it fondly, which is a great form of soft power to have when you’re trying to make sales.

Cereals Canada desperately needs new facilities for the processing and milling functions it inherited from CIGI. Those have been “unfit for purpose” for many years, but the grain industry has been profoundly divided over how to fix it. Some want a new building in downtown Winnipeg near the grain companies’ headquarters. Others think it’d make more sense to be placed in the University of Manitoba research park, which is home to much agricultural research and development.

Others think an existing vacant industrial building should be used, as a way of keeping costs down.

That’s the sort of thing a board should discuss, debate and vote upon. Members want to be heard and their concerns understood. It seems that in that process the wheels came off the wagon.

Multiple people involved in Cereals Canada have used the same phrase when speaking with me: “putting the cart before the horse.” Right now, it feels like the horse has slammed into the wheelless cart and the rider went vaulting over the wreckage and into the mud.

This sort of possibly unnecessary crisis isn’t just a boardroom drama and a bit of gossip. This sort of blow-up could derail hopes to deal with Cereals Canada’s real needs. Emotions got pretty raw here, and I haven’t reported half of what I’ve heard over the past few weeks.

With any luck, Brett Halstead, a Saskatchewan farmer and new chair of Cereals Canada, is right in the way he described the aftermath of the board meeting:

“The board of directors strongly supports Cereals Canada, including the vision for the GATE,” said Halstead.

Perhaps, after an airing of grievances around the table, the half dozen companies thinking of quitting will end up staying.

However, if there are still hurt feelings around the board table and within Cereals Canada, it’s important, for the sake of farmers, to patch it up.

Most people will get a few days this summer to lounge around and read a book. If you’re involved in boards, commissions and committees, you’d get a lot out of The Great Chair.

And for those at Cereals Canada who ended up in a donnybrook and are now nursing bruises, that’d be a good tome to take to the beach.