Looking Up: Real GDP and Alberta’s Agri-Food Industries

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The real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for Alberta’s agri-food industry rose again in 2017. Jean Marie Uwizeyimana, agri-food statistician with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, examines the numbers.

In 2017, Alberta’s GDP for agri-food industries rose 2.5 per cent to $6.5 billion, the second consecutive year of growth. “At 12.5 per cent,” explains Uwizeyimana, “These industries represented the third highest percentage share of the total Canadian agri-food GDP after Ontario and Quebec.”

The GDP for the province’s primary agriculture industry increased 1.9 per cent to $3.5 billion in 2017. “Of this total, the GDP for crop and animal production rose 1.8 per cent to $3.4 billion,” says Uwizeyimana. “Support activities for agriculture increased 5.3 per cent to $108.0 million.”

Food and beverage manufacturing industries in Alberta grew at a faster pace, increasing 3.2 per cent to $3.0 billion, adds Uwizeyimana. “It has been increasing for the last five years. The food manufacturing industry GDP rose 3.4 per cent to $2.5 billion, while the beverage manufacturing industry increased 2.2 per cent to $474.3 million.”

Meat products manufacturing continued to be Alberta’s largest food segment. “It accounted for roughly $1.0 billion, or 38.1 per cent, of total food manufacturing GDP,” explains Uwizeyimana. “Grain and oilseed milling ranked second at $296.5 million, or almost 12.0 per cent.”

Overall, Alberta’s economy in 2017 increased 4.9 per cent to $304.7 billion, as measured by real GDP, after declining for two years. Alberta also led all provinces in economic growth, with mining, quarrying, oil and gas extraction as the main contributing industries. Nationally, GDP also grew 3.3 per cent to $1.7 trillion: the strongest year-over-year increase since 2011.

GDP is one of the primary indicators used to measure the performance of a country’s economy and is an important tool when comparing the performance of different jurisdictions. It represents the monetary value of all goods and services produced over a specific time period and is often referred to as the size of the economy. Adds Uwizeyimana, “As it is collected in nominal – or current – dollars, comparing two periods requires making adjustments for inflation. Real GDP is GDP adjusted for inflation.”

Source: Alberta Agriculture and Forestry

Take this Weather and Climate Webpage with You

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Alberta and Agriculture and Forestry (AF) has just launched its weather and climate mobile-friendly webpage. Ralph Wright, head of agro-meteorology with AF, explains the features of this weather app and how it can help Alberta producers.

“What this app is doing is taking all the different sources of weather information we have out there and putting it in one place – that is – on your mobile device,” says Wright. “Typically, most weather apps are just getting forecasts. The thing that always struck us about the forecasts is that it doesn’t show what happened yesterday. That is a very important question for farmers. For example, when you talk about winds and when to spray, the forecasts aren’t that accurate as to when the winds might diminish in the evening or maybe when they start picking up in the afternoon, or for that matter, what range of directions have they been blowing in.”

This app lets producers look at all of the hourly data for winds for the past few days, says Wright. “If we’re in a stable weather pattern – today is much like yesterday – you can start getting some pretty good ideas when today’s winds may pick up or subside. You can look back over the last couple of days, and also see what the gusts were like. So, if you’re thinking of spraying right now, you can take a look at what the winds are at several weather stations in your area. If they are all similar, there a good chance your area will be the same.”

The app also features Environment Canada’s radar superimposed over Google maps. “You can zoom right in on your quarter section,” adds Wright. “You can see the storms coming in real time, as the radar is updated every 10 minutes. Our handy little play back slider lets you move it forward and backward to get a good feel for how fast it’s moving, where it’s going and how long it may last. The radar also lets you see out a few hundred kilometres to see if there is anything coming beyond the horizon.”

The app keeps records of temperatures at different times of the day. “We all know what tomorrow’s temperatures are forecast to be, but what was the temperature last night,” says Wright. “Perhaps you sprayed a couple days ago, and you don’t know how low the temperature dropped. Did you get frost? Maybe the temps dipped down to 3 or 4 degrees and the plants “shut down” temporarily. It could mean a recent herbicide application may not have been as effective as it should have been. We now have those records for producers to see.”

The app features precipitation amounts recorded at weather stations around the province. “This is particularly important for producers who have insured on the weather stations for lack of moisture,” explains Wright. “People are insuring on precipitation amounts for AFSC’s Lack of Moisture insurance programs, and they can go take a look at any time to see how much rain has fallen. This is particularly important near AFSC’s cut off times, giving the insured some insight into whether or not a payment may be triggered.”

Insects – alfalfa weevil, bertha armyworm, wheat midge – are part of this app. “It will give you the heads up for scouting, some awareness of how the insects are developing, and then help you to make decisions whether or not you need to spray,” adds Wright.

Fusarium head blight is another category on the app. Says Wright, “This webpage will tell you whether conditions right for infection. If they are, it’s time to be extra vigilant.”

Most of the weather station data being displayed goes back up to two months, including hourly data. “However,” adds Wright, “We also have an almanac which allows you to go and explore climate data back to 1961. What we have available now is growing season precipitation for the last 58 years. Here, we can see that Fort Vermilion has been in a dry spell since the drought of 2002. But looking back further you can a long series of dry years in the 1960s and early 1970s. You can also look at corn heat units and frost free days. We will continue to add more features, so stay connected.”

The mobile webpage also features more detailed Environment Canada forecasts, weather alerts, and the fire risk index that goes back seven days.

Find this mobile friendly webpage at www.weatherdata.ca/m to add to your smart phone’s home screen. For more information about the webpage, contact Ralph Wright at 780-446-6831.

Source: Alberta and Agriculture and Forestry

 

CSTA’s Annual Meeting Taking Place at a Crucial Time for the Industry

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From July 8-11, the Canadian Seed Trade Association will hold its 2018 annual meeting at Le Centre Sheraton Montreal Hotel in downtown Montreal, Quebec. A full four days of productive meetings and exciting social events are planned, including the Family Fun Night and Gala Dinner.

But amid the usual fun and socializing will be some important discussions surrounding the future of the Canadian seed trade.

According to CSTA President Dan Wright, in addition to CSTA’s work on the national and international level to facilitate the trade of seed, some specific projects attendees can expect to take part in include:

  • Seed Synergy discussions — Much discussion has been had and progress made over the past several months. Don’t miss this chance to receive important updates and talk about a next-generation seed regulatory system for the country at this joint session with the Seed Synergy partners.
  • Value creation — two important models have been proposed for value creation in cereals, and insight will be offered into how the models might work and what the potential benefits might be.

Also, another Women in CSTA session will take place, recognizing the important work being done by women in ag and how our sector can facilitate more of it.

Committee sessions will look to expand on important work in areas such as government regulations on neonicotinoids, plant breeding innovation, pollinator health, intellectual property protection and international phytosanitary standards.

CSTA will also be honouring three important people this year at its annual awards luncheon:

  • Dr. Igor Falak, Canadian Plant Breeding and Genetics
  • Stephen Yarrow, CSTA Seed Achievement
  • Ron Weik, CSTA Honourary Life Membership

An exciting companion program and children’s program is offered as well. The conference hotel is located centrally, just steps away from the popular shopping district on Saint Catherine’s Street, as well as many fine dining restaurants that are known to the Montreal area.

For more information and to register, visit seedinnovation.ca/annual-meeting-2018/.

Bayer’s Monsanto Acquisition Closes Tomorrow

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Bayer plans to complete the acquisition of Monsanto on June, 7, following the receipt of all required approvals from regulatory authorities. “The acquisition of Monsanto is a strategic milestone in strengthening our portfolio of leading businesses in health and nutrition. We will double the size of our agriculture business and create a leading innovation engine in agriculture, positioning us to better serve our customers and unlock the long-term growth potential in the sector,” says Werner Baumann, chairman of the Board of Management of Bayer AG.

Bayer announced its intention to acquire Monsanto in May 2016 and signed an agreement with the U.S. company for 128 U.S. dollars per share in September 2016. Currently, that corresponds to a total cost of approximately 63 billion U.S. dollars taking into account Monsanto’s debt outstanding as of February 28, 2018. In connection with the comprehensive regulatory approval process, Bayer has agreed to the divestiture of businesses which generated 2.2 billion euros in sales in 2017 for an aggregate base purchase price of 7.6 billion euros. Including Monsanto and taking the divestitures into account, the health and agriculture businesses would have been roughly equal in size in 2017, with total pro forma sales of around 45 billion euros including combined Crop Science sales of around 20 billion euros. In 2017, both companies together employed approximately 115,000 people, accounting for the divestments.

The acquisition is anticipated to generate significant value. Bayer expects a positive contribution to core earnings per share starting in 2019. From 2021 onward, that contribution is expected to be double-digit percentage. Moreover, adjusted for divestments, Bayer expects synergies to deliver annual contributions of 1.2 billion U.S. dollars to EBITDA before special items as of 2022.

In order to acquire Monsanto, Bayer secured initial bridge financing of 57 billion U.S. dollars. As announced in September 2016, this is being refinanced by a combination of equity and debt transactions, some of which have already been completed. The final equity measure will be a rights issue, which was announced yesterday.

Bayer will become the sole shareholder of Monsanto on June 7. According to the conditional approval from the United States Department of Justice, the integration of Monsanto into Bayer can take place as soon as the divestments to BASF have been completed. This is expected to be in approximately two months. “We have diligently prepared for the upcoming integration over the past two years. Our extensive experience in integrating other large companies has proven that we can and will be successful,” says Baumann.

Bayer will remain the company name. Monsanto will no longer be a company name. The acquired products will retain their brand names and become part of the Bayer portfolio.

Full offering of innovative technologies and solutions

“Innovation is vital to produce more healthy, safe and affordable food for a growing population in a more sustainable manner. The combination of the two businesses will allow us to deliver more innovation faster and provide solutions tailored to the needs of farmers around the world,” says Liam Condon, Bayer Board Member and President of the Crop Science Division. “Going forward, our teams in the labs and in the field will be able to take a much more holistic approach to innovation as we address the enormous challenges we face in agriculture.”

Including Monsanto and taking the divestitures into account, the total R&D investment of Bayer in 2017 would have been around 5.7 billion euros. Of that, 2.4 billion euros would have been spent in the combined agriculture business on a pro forma basis.

Strengthened commitment to sustainability and responsibility

Bayer is fully aware of the heightened responsibility that a leadership position in agriculture entails. The company will continue to further strengthen its commitment in the area of sustainability. As a leader, Bayer is fully committed to upholding the highest ethical and responsibility standards, strengthening access to health and nutrition, and further reducing its environmental footprint. “We will apply the same rigor to achieving our sustainability targets as we do to our financial targets,” says Baumann.

Bayer is also committed to further enhancing stakeholder engagement. Baumann says: “We aim to deepen our dialogue with society. We will listen to our critics and work together where we find common ground. Agriculture is too important to allow ideological differences to bring progress to a standstill. We have to talk to each other. We need to listen to each other. It’s the only way to build bridges.”

Know the PBR rules

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The goal of Plant Breeders’ Rights (PBR) is to encourage investment in plant breeding in Canada. Yet there is a misconception that PBR only benefits large companies. The fact is, large companies often have other tools to protect their intellectual property, including patents and contracts.

PBR is critically important for public breeders, including universities, and smaller private breeders who may not have the resources or traits necessary to utilize other forms of protection.

Know the new PBR rules:

  • If a variety is protected under PBR, it is illegal to sell common seed, even if you don’t use the variety name.
  • Under PBR, it is OK to keep seed on your farm – as long as the farm-saved rights are not pre-empted by another agreement or contract.
  • Under the new PBR ’91 rules, the buyer, the processor and the seller are responsible for the infringement.
  • Visit PBRfacts.ca for more information.

 

Canadian Agricultural Partnership launched

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April 1st marked the official launch of the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, a $3-billion commitment that will help chart the course for government investments in the sector over the next five years.

The Partnership aims to continue to help the sector grow trade and advance innovation while maintaining and strengthening public confidence in the food system, and increase its diversity.

Federal, provincial and territorial (FPT) governments have been working collaboratively since 2016 to develop the next agricultural policy framework, the Canadian Agricultural Partnership. Federal, provincial and territorial governments consulted with a wide range of stakeholders, including producers, processors, indigenous communities, women, youth, and small and emerging sectors to ensure the Partnership was focused on the issues that matter most to them.

In addition, under the Partnership, business risk management (BRM) programs will continue to help producers manage significant risks that threaten the viability of their farm and are beyond their capacity to manage.

Quick facts:

  • The Partnership includes $1 billion for federal activities and programs, and $2 billion in cost-shared programs delivered by provinces and territories on a 60:40 basis.
  • Program details and applications were launched for the six federal programs on February 13th and include: AgriMarketing, AgriCompetitiveness, AgriScience, AgriInnovate, AgriDiversity and AgriAssurance.
  • The Government of Canada is working with provinces and territories to finalize the details of cost-shared programs, which will be announced as they become available.
  • In addition to the $3 billion investment in strategic initiatives under the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, farmers will continue to have access to a robust suite of business risk management programs. Changes to business risk management programs are in effect for the 2018 program year.
  • The sector is strong, with exports in 2017 of Canadian agriculture, agri-food, fish and seafood reaching $64.6 billion, a $2 billion increase from 2016 levels. Producers are also forecast to see record levels of net cash income, with increases in both crop receipts and livestock production.

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Using the Alberta Climate Information Service

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In agriculture, weather is the most important factor in determining the success of a cropping or grazing season. Alberta Agriculture and Forestry’s website features the Alberta Climate Information Service (ACIS) an interactive tool that helps producers, farm consultants, and researchers.

ACIS is a network of more than 350 weather stations around the province reporting weather conditions in near, real-time. It includes detailed archival information that goes back to 1961. “With more than 350 weather stations to choose from, you should be able to find one close enough to you to be approximate to the conditions you are experiencing,” says Harry Brook, crop specialist at the Alberta Ag-Info Centre.

Elements covered by this network include precipitation accumulated and recent, temperature extremes and average, relative humidity, wind speeds and directions, solar radiation, snow depth, soil temperature at four different depths, and soil moisture as a percentage of field capacity. These elements allow comparisons to long term averages.

ACIS includes is a large amount of data on long-term averages for air temperatures, maximums and minimums, growing degree days at base 0 degrees, 2 degrees, and 5 degrees, and frost probabilities in 1 degree increments from 0 C to -5 C. The program also includes a wind chill index, and current weather radar can also be accessed.

ACIS also features a large collection of maps that look at drought indexes, fire danger, precipitation, soil moisture and temperature. Detailed moisture information is found for Southern Alberta through the Irrigation Management Climate Information Network (IMCIN) to help with irrigation decisions.

“Soil moisture and temperatures are useful in predicting when soils should be ready to start seeding and decide if moisture is sufficient to allow germination,” says Brook. “Temperatures and wind speeds can help in deciding when it is safe to spray pesticides or help in diagnosing the possibility of spray drift.”

“There is also a Fusarium head blight risk map. Using the preceding weather conditions, it can predict how likely it is that fusarium head blight will establish in your vicinity and help in timing for any fungicide application,” explains Brook. “Plans are also underway developing insect pest prediction maps for some of our most damaging insect pests.

“Growing degree days, potato heat units, and corn heat units for localities are useful in estimating if various crops can be successfully grown. Also, these average numbers combined with frost probabilities are useful tools in estimating if there is enough time left in the growing season for a crop to mature,” he adds.

Alberta Agriculture and Forestry is hosting a webinar on the many uses of ACIS on Wednesday, May 2, 2018 from 10 a.m. to 12 noon.

Lyster, Whiting Honoured by Alberta Seed Growers

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Norm Lyster, centre, was presented the ASG's Honorary Life Award by ASG co-vice-president Renee DeWindt-Hoyme, and ASG president Ward Oatway.

The Alberta Seed Growers honoured two individuals at their recent annual general meeting in Banff, Alta.

Norm Lyster was presented the Honorary Life Award in recognition of his valuable service to the seed industry in Alberta.

Lyster attended his first CSGA AGM in Banff as a seven-year-old in 1961 and has been involved with the Canadian Seed Growers in an official capacity since 1976.

He earned a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture, majoring in agricultural economics, from the University of Alberta, where his thesis focused on market risk and the maturing risk reduction market for feed pea producers. He also obtained an MSc Ag. in 1999, majoring in marketing and trade, under a fellowship from the Winnipeg Commodity Exchange.

Lyster has worked as owner, operator and manager of Lyster Farms Ltd. Integrated Pedigreed seed production, processing and sales since the 1980s. He is a CSGA recognized Select and Foundation Grower, and accredited grader and operator with the Canadian Seed Institute.

Lyster’s involvement in the Alberta and Canadian Seed Growers has been long-running and multi-faceted. He was elected a provincial director of the Alberta branch of the CSGA in 1999 and served as national representative from 2003-2014. He was then elected president of the CSGA and served from 2014 to 2016 in that capacity. He is currently the past president of the organization.

Trent Whiting, centre, was presented with the Bill Witbeck Outstanding Service Award by ASG co-vice-president Tracy Niemela and ASG president Ward Oatway.

This year, Trent Whiting was presented with the Bill Witbeck Outstanding Service Award, for his outstanding contributions to pedigreed seed production.

Whiting, Alberta/B.C. marketing representative with SeCan, has a degree in agriculture from the University of Alberta. For over 25 years, he has worked closely with seed growers in the seed industry. He started his seed career in Edmonton with UGG Forage and Special Crops in a production role. He remained with UGG/ Proven Seed until 2007, then a short time with BrettYoung before joining SeCan in the spring of 2008.

Whiting is a coach to his friends, his members at SeCan and his competitors in the industry – he has a drive to make all those around him better, and puts the needs of his members and their customers ahead of his own interests.

In his role at SeCan, Whiting helps his members and their customers choose the best products for their farms – this may not always be a SeCan product and this is noted and appreciated by all. Recently, Whiting has taken on the added responsibility of stock seed production at SeCan in the west.

Congratulations to Norm and Trent for their past and on-going contributions toward a strong seed industry in Alberta.

The Good, Bad and Ugly of Working in a Family Business

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The Ellis Seeds family. From left: Simon Ellis and his wife Amanda and son Lincoln; Megan, Karen, Andrea and Warren Ellis.

Successfully navigating the pitfalls that are unique to family enterprises can reap great benefits for everyone involved.

We all know the saying, “You can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your family.”

And for many people, the idea of working with family members would solicit a resounding response of “No, thank you!”

However, for others, they wouldn’t have it any other way. Simon Ellis is one of these individuals. As owner and sales manager at Ellis Seeds, a fourth-generation family seed retailer in Wawanesa, Man. (54 km southeast of Brandon), he says, “Working with family is very rewarding.”

Ellis graduated from Assiniboine Community College in Brandon in 2013. It was at that point he assumed more responsibility at his family’s company.

“I currently work with my dad and mom, who are slowly stepping back from the business,” he explains. “My role has reached a point where I am making the majority of the business decisions. I focus on developing new business relationships, logistics, and running day-to-day tasks with help from our employees.”

In 2015, Simon’s wife Amanda joined Ellis Seeds and is responsible for the financial and administrative side of the business. Recently, her father also came onboard, bringing with him many years of sales and management experience.

“Our family is very fortunate in that everyone can communicate with each other very well,” says Ellis. “There is a trust that you wouldn’t find with other employees. The biggest challenge is the fear of damaging a strong family relationship; businesses can be stressful during challenging times. It is important to remember everyone wants what is best for the family and business.”

This is the same belief that has endured for nearly a century when Ernest Ellis (Simon’s great-grandfather) started Ellis Seeds in 1923. At that time, Ernest shipped grass seed across the prairies because of the need to provide a quality product and produce productive land. Since then, Frank (Ernest’s son) took the reins, followed by his son, Warren, who is Simon’s father.

“We take pride in that our product has flowed through all four generations,” says the younger Ellis.

Need to Communicate

However, the journey has not been without its challenges, which is why he says communication is the most important thing you can do to navigate working in a family business.

“Express your concerns before they build into something bigger, and continually express gratitude to your family members for supporting you and the business. They are working hard to support you, and if a mistake is made, it was a mistake and there are more important things in life.”

Richard and Marian Stamp and family, who operate Alberta’s Stamp Seeds.

Have Some Compassion

Rick Stamp is the owner and patriarch of Stamp Seeds, a family owned and operated pedigreed seed farm in Enchant, Alta., located approximately 77 km northeast of Lethbridge.

“Working with family is the most envious position to be in, when each person and — in turn — the family as a group, can figure out how to make it click,” says Stamp. “On the other side of the coin, this can be the very worst position to be in as a family, as many family operations do not survive, and this can ultimately break families apart.”

It was back in 1979 that Stamp decided he wanted a career in farming. Prior to this, he had gone to college and became a steam engineer, but realized that wasn’t what he wanted.

“It was a great learning experience, but I then had a chance to purchase two quarters of land. I applied for a beginning farmers loan from AFSC, which I was able to secure,” he recalls. “In hindsight today, I was very ill-prepared, with a lack of business knowledge and no capital. But what I did have was a lot of ambition, the ability to dream, to learn every day and, at the same time, was not afraid to put in the hours to make it happen.”

Since 1980, Stamp and his wife Marian have worked together as partners. Their three sons, Greg, Matthew and Nathan also work full time in the business, plus two of Marian’s first cousins, who have worked at Stamp Seeds for more than a decade.

Stamp says his company has been successful largely due to deep-down compassion the family has for one another.

“We are concerned what is happening in everyone’s lives, what we are having to deal with, and what can we do to help each other be successful and satisfied in their work and personal lives. If we do this for each other as a family, this translates to all other individuals who work in your business building a great operating environment. This then radiates out to everyone else our group deals with.”

Pitfalls and Conflicts

There are a number of possible conflicts that can arise in a family business (or any business, for that matter), according to Francine Carlin, principal of the Business Harmonizer Group, an advisory and consulting firm based in Vancouver. Some of these tend to be more unique in a family business enterprise such as:

  • lack of communication
  • lack of trust in decision making
  • not having clear roles or job descriptions
  • lack of education
  • little or no shared experiences within the family or the business
  • a sense of entitlement
  • not understanding the impact of the family dynamic role in shaping the future of the business

Francine Carlin, principal of the Business Harmonizer Group in Vancouver.

Carlin is dedicated to helping family-business owners and members develop meaningful solutions for resolving the issues and concerns that have become roadblocks to critical decision making. She has found that in her transition from corporate work to working with family enterprises, many issues can be much more complex in nature.

For instance, in working with those in the agriculture industry, Carlin says many family farms are struggling.

“And the legacy is even more emotional because it’s tied to the land. I worked with one family who still had the land since 1882 and, somehow, by blood, sweat and tears, they kept it in the family. There are a lot of deep stories in the family enterprise. It takes a lot of emotional energy to change.”

Carlin says what she enjoys most is helping to facilitate a shared understanding of complex issues by separating the person from the issue.

“It is important to have regular family business meetings with an agenda and often facilitated by a neutral party. It is also important to establish some form of governance that could facilitate shared understanding and family harmony, so that all impacted are clear about policy, roles and expectations. Hold regular financial reporting and business planning outcomes with nonactive family owners. The more family members working in the business, the more vital it is to ensure that everyone is clear on roles, responsibilities and expectations.”

Carlin adds that for those individuals who are considering starting a family business or joining a family business that has already been established, she offers this advice.

“Understand the amount of work and commitment that’s required to be successful. Build a foundation of trust and establish financial and business management best practices. And spend time nurturing and supporting a positive family dynamic.”

Stamp couldn’t agree more: “Build a workable, functional, and most importantly ‘accountable’ business structure, for everyone to work inside of. Individuals are paid for showing up on time to work every day, and for what they bring to the business — not because of who they are. If you can’t get the job done, you should not be part of the team. I believe if you want others to join your business — direct family or not — ask yourself why would anyone want to be involved where there is constant conflict, lack of respect and unhappiness.”

Adds Ellis: “Have the tough conversations before starting or joining in. Know where everyone stands and what their goals are. Identify and deal with challenges before they come up. The most important thing here is family and you must protect that at all costs.”

Are Seed Testing Methods Keeping Up with the Times?

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When it comes to seed quality, customers want to know exactly what they are buying and what they can expect.

High quality seed is determined by its parent’s genetic makeup, physical integrity and purity of the seed, seed health and physiological seed quality, explains Lahcen Grass, the global manager for seed biology testing and product marketing support at the Syngenta Seedcare Institute.

Alison Powell, a long-time member of the International Seed Testing Association (ISTA) and an honorary senior lecturer at the University of Aberdeen, says it’s important to define what we mean by “seed quality.”

The term is wide ranging, she says, and encompasses purity, variety, problems of seed health, germination and vigour. She says it also includes whether or not the seed is genetically modified, and factors such as moisture content and seed weight.

“We hear a great deal about plant breeding, but the product of plant breeding is only as good as the quality of seed produced,” Powell says, noting much of that depends on seed production conditions.

Grass agrees. “The quality of a given year’s seed is determined by the prevailing weather and field conditions from the previous year, and subsequent processing and handling practices,” he says, adding that you also have to consider if it was harvested at its highest point of physiological maturity.

The latter property can be determined by two separate tests: a germination test and a vigour test. However, these tests are not created equal.

While each seed company has its own proprietary method for conducting vigour tests, Powell points out that standardized vigour tests are published in the ISTA Rules for Seed Testing and are used worldwide. Vigour tests often impose stressful conditions on the seed during germination and emergence. The ISTA tests include several different tests but are all based on the main cause of differences in vigour, namely seed aging.

“High germination seed lots from the same variety and year can yield good germination test results but score very different on vigour tests,” Grass says. “Generally, seed susceptibility to stresses that lead to poor and uneven field emergence are typical features of seed with lower vigour, not of lower germination capacity.

“On the other hand, higher and uniform emergence and vigorous seedling growth are properties of seed with higher vigour and germination.”

Seed vigour is unlike germination in that it’s not an absolute number. The expression of vigour depends on field conditions and is affected by oxygen uptake, water uptake and soil temperature. Thus all seeds will emerge well in favourable conditions, and differences in emergence due to vigour only arise in poor conditions.

“Industry shouldn’t rely solely on germination tests, because it doesn’t give the complete story,” Grass says. “The good thing is all seed companies go the extra mile to conduct their own vigour tests. They invest their own resources because they don’t want to sell low vigour seed to customers.”

Sarah Foster, president of 20/20 Seed Labs, agrees.

“We have our sights set on seed quality and how the environment could influence vigour,” she says. “With hybrid wheat on the horizon, quality, performance and vigour are key competing factors. As scientists we have to work on new tests to determine what’s needed in the near future.”

Grass says this information can then be used to rank seed lots based on germination. For example, if the germination rate is low, there’s no need to test it for vigour.

With a focus on vigour, Powell and the ISTA Vigour Committee constantly think about the development of new tests and the potential for automation, which can dramatically speed the test results. For example, Powell says the radicle emergence test depends on the physical counting of emerged radicles, but the use of image analysis can drastically speed the process.

Just as scientific advancements are made in plant breeding, so too are they in the seed testing sector. But are the rules and standards set forth keeping up with these new breakthroughs?

In 2009, Joost Van der Burg, a member of ISTA’s Advanced Technologies Committee representing the Netherlands at the time, inventoried the most promising technologies that were either in the pipeline or had emerged and were available for use. The technologies, he says, usually involve some investment and they sometimes take a decade or more to mature, so it’s understandable that some secrecy surrounds them.

Powell acknowledges there are new technologies, developed by equipment companies, which are beginning to come into the market. The challenge, she says, with many of the tempting new technologies is that they’ve only been tested using select material, not commercial material.

Powell explains that ISTA’s Seed Science and Advisory Group can evaluate the efficacy of equipment that is marketed as a means of testing seed.

“We get as much information as possible from the company and published research, and then evaluate the evidence that the equipment is effective and publish the results,” she says. “The results of the seed tests need to be comparable everywhere because that is the basis of international trade.”

However, having worked with students from Nepal, Bangladesh and Kenya, Powell says she’s particularly aware that not all countries have modern laboratories and equipment. “That’s why it’s necessary for the association to recognize a wide range of tests,” she points out.

Tested and Trusted

“Our vision within the International Seed Testing Association is ‘uniformity in seed testing,’” Powell says. “We’ve worked hard to get the rules and testing standards we have today in place.

“The tests that exist now are the ones that have been and can be replicated around the world in any laboratory, and that give people in the seed industry a great deal of confidence. They are also the basis for international trade.”

In some cases, the different types of tests to evaluate one characteristic of seeds reflect the changes in approach to testing. “When I think about a variety test, there are many different types of tests that can be used to verify the variety,” Powell says. “These range from traditional methods that evaluate if features of the seed are ‘characteristic of the variety’ to extraction of proteins or DNA techniques, followed by electrophoresis or PCR [polymerase chain reaction].”

Foster, who is also an ISTA auditor, which means she helps to audit government laboratories and is committed to promoting the seed industry, says: “Yes, ISTA is current with the times and keeps working toward introducing new rules.” There’s a great deal of work going on internationally, she adds, and ISTA’s focus remains strong to incorporate new standards.

Powell explains the test methods approved by ISTA today underwent rigorous research and numerous studies to ensure accuracy and the ability to replicate.

The characteristics tested for today are the ones industry has found to influence seed performance. If you want good emergence, then the seed needs to have a high germination rate and good vigour, Powell emphasizes. If you need seed of a certain variety, then you want excellent purity, she adds.

Adoption of New Rules

When working toward adoption of new testing methods, ISTA follows a Method Validation Programme. Technical committees conduct appropriate background research and development for different tests. This is followed by six laboratories completing the test using the specified protocol and preparation of a report from the data. Then there’s a technical and a statistical review of the report to determine if the validation has shown that the test is repeatable and reproducible. If the validation is satisfactory, then the test is proposed as a new rule. If approved by ISTA members, it can be introduced into the ISTA Rules.

The subsequent application of the test by ISTA laboratories is monitored through an auditing process and proficiency tests in which ISTA accredited laboratories are sent the same sample, asked to perform a test and expected to get the same results.

For some tests, there are a number of methods that can be used. As an example, a number of approaches and equipment have been developed to determine if seed has been genetically modified. Powell explains the approach ISTA has taken to ensure uniformity in testing is that a laboratory can use a combination of approaches, as long as we get the same results.

Future

It’s important for testing methods to remain relevant. “We are looking at and keeping our eye on automation, the use of robotics moving into image analysis, and the requirements for uniformity in horticulture and precision agriculture,” Powell says. “If you see something that has potential, bring it to ISTA because we might be able to help it advance. We need to know what’s going on scientifically and to develop it, and develop it properly.”

ISTA’s Seed Science Advisory Group looks at practical and applied research. Comprised of eight people, representing Denmark, France, the Philippines, the United Kingdom and the United States, the group is responsible for reading publications and scientific literature to see if there are ideas, concepts or technologies that need to be further developed.

“We all want seed to perform for customers,” Powell says, noting seed performance impacts the entire value chain.

Foster adds: “Farmers continue to adopt precision ag practices and depend on every single seed put into the ground to grow and perform — the only way to achieve that is by doing some very high profile vigour work. Every inch of the field counts, and seed testing plays an important role.”