A farm away from farm

Much of Kevin Bender’s farm work occurs away from his Bentley-area farm.

Kevin Bender checks heat levels in a canola bin on the family farm west of Bentley.

Kevin Bender checks heat levels in a canola bin on the family farm west of Bentley.

Much of Kevin Bender’s farm work occurs away from his Bentley-area farm.

It also requires him to attend meetings, talk to the media and perform other seemingly non-agricultural tasks.

President of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association, Bender is also an Alberta Canola Producers Commission director and Alberta Barley Commission delegate.

“I thought, ‘If I want to see something done I’ve got to do my part and get involved,’” explained Bender of these off-farm activities.

The alternatives were to sit back and complain or do nothing — neither of which appealed to him.

However, he’s come to realize that getting involved takes time.

“Probably canola’s been the busiest,” said Bender of his responsibilities with the Canola Producers Commission.

“That one’s probably more like 30 to 35 days.”

In the case of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association, his time commitment has been kept relatively low by a supportive board that’s shared the workload. And Bender’s Barley Commission duties consist primarily of attendance at annual general and regional meetings, and whatever additional work he deems necessary.

But put his work in all three organizations together, and it adds up to a lot of days away from the farm. Fortunately, said Bender, his father Lloyd and brother Mike, with whom he farms, and his wife Sara have stepped in to fill the void.

Involvement in producer associations, especially as president of the WCWGA, has taught him about policy development, how to run a meeting and working with government.

“I’ve had more exposure to the media, which certainly is a learning experience,” added Bender, who has fielded calls from reporters in Canada and the United States during the past year.

Some of those queries came at inopportune times, such as in the month of May.

“It was in the middle of seeding, and we were busy out in the field.”

However, his work with the producer groups has been enjoyable and has brought unexpected rewards.

“I believe it’s benefitted our farm, just in a better understanding of markets and policy in agriculture.”

The past year has been a bit frustrating for the WCWGA, which favours open and competitive markets.

“Probably our primary goal is a voluntary Canadian Wheat Board,” said Bender. “We’re not wanting to get rid of it, we just want the option of marketing aside from the monopoly of the Wheat Board.”

Despite a pledge in 2006 by the newly elected federal Conservatives to remove barley from Wheat Board control, little progress has been made.

“We wanted it done a long time ago,” said Bender. “We’re still going to persist and press on.”

Another source of frustration has been the slow pace of World Trade Organization negotiations to reduce international trade barriers. The WCWGA and other Canadian producer groups want the global playing field leveled so farmers here can compete fairly with their counterparts in other countries.

“We just basically want equality, so we’re not penalized just because we have canola and they have soybeans,” said Bender.

There are other challenges facing wheat, barley and canola producers, including current weak prices.

Canola, which has been touted as a promising source of biofuel, has been hurt by low oil prices. Meanwhile, the spread of clubroot disease in Alberta and China’s refusal to accept Canadian canola with blackleg disease have hurt the industry, although not as badly as many expected, said Bender.

“The canola has held up quite well, despite the high dollar.

“Probably a lot of that has to do with the greater acceptance of canola as the healthiest food oil.”

Looking forward, Bender is optimistic about 2010. Accumulations of snow should improve soil moisture come spring and fertilizer has come down in price.

“We’ll see what the year brings, but I always like to see the bright spots.”

hrichards@bprda.wpengine.com