Updated: Jan 29
When we launched this portal a couple of months ago, we were convinced of the need for it but unsure of its immediate impact. We have been pleased with the results so far as our combined following, site-visits and social-media, has reached above 1000. We still have a long way to go but as we are trying to determine how to guide our promotional efforts to reach a wider audience, we thought we would reflect back on the origins of the concept and what had enticed us to embark on it.
In this vein my memory goes back 30 years to a study I had conducted into container supply bottlenecks in Saskatchewan and how they were stifling the region’s economic development potential, particularly its agricultural export prospects. Before any of the recommendations, prime one being an inland-container-port, could even be considered the government had changed, putting everything on hold.
Under the new government I was appointed to Chair the Grain Transportation Taskforce -- at the time both transport and agriculture portfolios under the same Minister. The mandate was cast broadly to address all transportation challenges confronting the grain-industry, including container-supply problems. The Taskforce consisted of a retired Deputy Premier, prominent academics as well as corporate and union representatives. We issued a fairly comprehensive report, but with another cabinet-shuffle, neither the report nor its recommendations saw the light of day.
After that my career shifted to China, where I would later spend more than a decade engaged in various supply-chain and intermodal-transport projects, witnessing the development of the world’s largest ports, coastal and inland. Upon my return to Canada, I was surprised to see the core recommendation of our 1990 study already implemented, Global Transportation Hub in Regina. But despite its grandiose title, it was largely a ghost-town, focused on land-development, not grain-handling or containerization. I had been involved in two dozen logistics and industrial parks in China, but clearly, these types of projects were not as easy to pull off in Canada.
At the farm-end of the grain-economy, however, it was a different story: astonishing progress driven by scientific-and-technological advancement. Most producers had diversified their crop-base, now running advanced farms with the capacity to grow anything the world needed. They were still trapped in a bulk-warp but given a chance would jump to the opportunity to shift to higher-value specialty crops. Lack of direct-sales and container-logistics channels were holding them back, but these challenges were a lot easier to tackle than developing the production-capacity. Producers had the foresight and the entrepreneurial spirit to drive an export-revival.
Leveraging my contacts in China, I embarked on a grain-export initiative to fulfill custom contract-orders procured across the Prairies and delivered to flour-mills, feed-lots and processing-plants in containers. It was meant to be a modest start-up but the volumes to a handful of buyers were likely to reach 1 MT or more. In developing the concept I received considerable support from the Minister I had served under in the 1990s, a fourth-generation farmer with intimate knowledge of the grain industry. I was honoured when he agreed to join my efforts, but the initiative fell victim to the abrupt deterioration in our trade-relations with China.
Stewing over the disappointment but too stubborn to give up, I came up with the Prairie Grain Portal concept, this time not a direct trading initiative but an export-facilitation platform. The concept was largely modelled after Ali Baba that I had followed closely when I was in China, how it had nurtured B-to-B sales along various supply-chains. In the process it had thrown a life-line to small and medium size enterprises (SMEs), now thriving participants in China’s vast industrial-chains, often misunderstood to be dominated by multi-nationals (MNCs) and state-owned enterprises (SOEs). Also, Ali Baba had opened up export opportunities for SMEs. The concept had to be modified to grain-trades but held a great deal of promise.
Again, I had the fortune of my Minister’s wise counsel and support, delivering his final verdict as follows: I can’t see why producers would not be keenly interested. Shortly after our launch, another prominent figure signed-up to our portal, the Premier of Saskatchewan when I had undertaken the 1990-study that got me started down this containerized grain-export path. With encouragement coming from both ends of the political spectrum, not just politicians but prominent figures engaged in agriculture all their lives, I was convinced of the viability of our novel mission.
Of course, these are still early days; 1000 plus followers of a new portal-initiative is not going to set the grain-industry on fire. But it looks like we are on to something that may steer the future of the Prairie grain economy in a new direction, paving the way to greater prosperity for producers who care to take advantage of new export channels. Naturally, we still have doubters if not critics among our visitors, but we have to do everything we can to win them over, with not just ideas or concepts but real results in the export arena. At least, I am encouraged to continue down this path of further crop-specialization, direct-sales and containerized logistics channels.
Once we launched the portal, we knew we had to embellish the concept and elaborate on why we were doing this, how we were going to pursue it, and what results we expected to come out of the initiative. To this end we planned to publish more content, which we have been doing over the last two months by publishing new posts every few days. This volume is a compendium of ten such 5-page articles, introduced with this Forward, and at the end concluded with Next Steps.
The first two posts focus on “why”. Specialize or Perish tries to bring attention to producers’ captivity to bulk-trades and the margin-squeeze these trades put them under. Path to Prosperity expounds on the need to shift to higher-value crops, specialty grades of our staples or new varieties, and to this end, the need to open up direct-sales channels and develop the necessary container-logistics capacity.
The next three posts focus on “how”. We describe the collaborative nature of the trade facilitation process, by first urging producers to participate in the process, Call for Collaboration, followed by Market Insights of our own to give producers a taste of the type of export prospects we see out there. Then we offer a Roadmap for Collaboration, how we propose to promote exports by showcasing farm-profiles, while we take on the task of identifying prospects through market-research efforts.
Then we turn to the nature of direct-sales, focusing on three more topics. We start with Risks and Rewards, trade-offs producers face and how they can mitigate trade-risks. The next article on Specialization deals with the scale-factor, how contract sales opportunities will be open to producers of all sizes to participate in. This is followed by our outlook on Industry Structure, with many new players emerging.
We conclude this volume with two articles on next-steps. The first presents our Research Agenda, where we will focus our efforts in the coming months: global competition (emerging and developed regions), regional-markets we concentrate on (mostly Asia Pacific), crop or industry segments we will target. Finally, we turn to Recasting our Global Image, with a focus on our region’s advanced production-capacity and crop-variety to meet the needs of discerning grain importers.
We close with a few pages on Next Steps, activities we will focus our efforts on in the coming months to grow our following and deepen engagement on the part of producers, our primary audience. In particular, we highlight six set of activities: market-research, portal-following, producer-meetings, farm-profiles, export-image and buyer-targets. We conclude this agenda with a call on our followers to generate support to our cause from producer-associations and government-agencies.
We will continue to report on our progress and findings on a regular basis, posts every few days on different topics and action-items. We hope that you will follow these posts and respond to our new campaigns to advance our mutual cause. In the meantime, please do not think that we are ignoring the execution prong of our mission -- grain-handling and container-logistics. We have a lot on the go in this respect, capacity-development, which we will be reporting on periodically.