The idea of diversification in cropping for Canadian Prairie farmers is not a new one, although it is a concept which has been at least put on the back burner at present.
That is not surprising given grain prices in general have been strong in recent years.
Farmers cannot be blamed for turning back to the tried and true when prices are good.
The agronomics associated with growing wheat, barley, oats, pencil out well in times of good cereal prices.
The fertilizer regime needed to grow good crops is well understood, the pest control package generally more diverse, and the crops themselves more forgiving of the issues which can arise weather-wise on the Canadian Prairies.
While there are some greater risks in terms of overall input costs, and some added potential for weather-induced losses with canola, but again prices have meant farmers have stuck with a crop now Queen of the Prairies.
So it has made sense in recent years to go back to what has generally been the backbone of Prairie grain farming for decades.
But it was not so long ago prices for grains and oilseeds were terrible, and farmers were looking for alternatives.
The situation created a book full of good news stories, along with more than a few wrecks too.
Farmers learned pulse crops can be grown here, and grown well.
We remain a major exporter, although one has the feeling the potential far exceeds what we are doing now.
The area of pulses; field peas, lentils, beans, chickpeas, lupins and more, is huge, with size and colour variations creating literally dozens of niche markets, most unexplored by Prairie producers.
Spices suited to field scale production, caraway, coriander and the like, were less promising as the markets are so small, even small acreage fluctuations impact prices.
Long term the question of the importance of a more diversified range of crops remains.
There is little doubt moving forward, with the federal government systematically reducing public variety developments in most crops, farmers are going to find margins tighten as profit-driven companies hold varietal rights.
That will mean new interest in more non-traditional crops once more.
It was for that reason I read of ongoing efforts for a trial run at growing thebaine-expressing poppies.
According to a recent Western Producer article, “thebaine, an alkaloid, can be processed into opiate pain relievers, which are a $500 to $600 million market in Canada and a multibillion-dollar market in the United States.”
That is what has motivated API Labs in Lethbridge to work for eight years to obtain approval for large scale poppy production in southern Alberta.
In the article Glen Metzler, managing director of API Labs noted thebaine poppy growers in Australia earned $3,480 per acre last year.
It’s those sorts of numbers which have to be compelling to farmers to continually consider new crops. In the case of poppies, Canada has no industry, and no rules to allow them to be farmed at present. But times do change.
As an industry agriculture must also look to diversify where it makes sense, and good prices for traditional crops today, should not curb that interest which may strengthen the sector’s future.