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Agriculture This Week - Farmers search for steady crop profits

Wheat has long been the crop which has defined Prairie agriculture in Canada. The region was settled, and the soil tilled, primarily to grow wheat, and farmers did that singular task well.

Wheat has long been the crop which has defined Prairie agriculture in Canada.

The region was settled, and the soil tilled, primarily to grow wheat, and farmers did that singular task well. So well in fact, the country was recognized widely as the breadbasket of the world.

Wheat after all is one of the key crops in feeding the world, at least in countries where bread is part of the diet.

Of course the consumption of bread is different today than even when I was a youngster.

Back in the 1960s, and ’70s you rarely sat down to a meal without a bowl of bread or buns on the table. It was just a part of a table setting like salt and pepper. Even in a restaurant soup always came with a bun and a meal with slices of bread on the table.

It was of course a thing left over from a time when people worked physically demanding jobs, and when bread was a low cost food alternative.

Most homes would have baked bread two, three times a week to feed the family, and we are not talking one frozen dough loaf pulled from the freezer, thawed and baked. This was scratch made bread, and multiple loaves baked that perfect brown, slathered with butter to enhance the look, and with luck served warm at coffee with homemade jam.

Of course bread is not the only change in our meals.

Dessert was standard fare as part of a meal, restaurant, or at home.

Afternoon coffee was a time for a slab of pie, homemade, and that was at home, or on the road. Pull into any restaurant in the days of my youth, and baked ‘in-restaurant’ pies were expected, and eaten with coffee as a common, normal thing to do.

Through such changes wheat became less the focus crop. The cropping rotation grew more diverse.

The emergence of canola and demand for its oil with the distinctive properties being the biggest crop change. It has grown to the point it is now the number one acreage crop on the Canadian Prairies, and while there might not be a lasting nickname with the change, the region is certainly the primary production area for canola in the world.

But even with demand for canola and still the skill set to grow lots and lots of wheat, farmers are always looking for additional crops which might make them a better profit.

The list is long, with some crops getting a foothold in rotations, and others coming and going in a matter of a few years. The list of what are all essentially inch crops is long; ranging from oats, through lentils, field peas, quinoa, coriander, canary seed, lupins, pinto beans, buckwheat, chickpeas and recently soybeans and corn.

None have become major crops, although collectively legume crops are important. And, there are things which suggest soybeans will become a major crop here, thanks to agronomics and new varieties.

The trouble with any field crop ultimately comes down to two things.

To start with the market for any crop is based on supply and demand. When prices are good farmers will rush to over-produce for the demand and that will push prices lower.

And, field crops are generally headed to markets where they feed people. While much of the world teeters on the edge of food shortages and people going to bed hungry, they are the world’s poorest people. It is impossible for those people to pay prices for a crop which covers the cost of production back here on the Canadian Prairies.

The dual situation means many crops farmers grow will only be profitable at times of low production and high demand, leaving farmers constantly looking for something they might grow that stabilizes return year-to-year.

Of course that too can change over a few years as what we eat, and how we eat it is continually in a state of evolution.

Calvin Daniels is Assistant Editor with Yorkton This Week.