By Tim Kalinowski, Staff Writer
More than ever Canadian farmers realize they are competing in a global marketplace. Sometimes this presents a negative in terms of competition or commodity prices, but sometimes it also means great opportunity.
This fact is something Sarah Foster, president and owner of 20/20 Seed Labs Inc., knows very well. Over the past six years her company has been travelling south to bring her lab’s high standards to Chilean seed analysts and seed breeders. It has added another revenue stream to her business and it has taught her just how interconnected the international agriculture market has become.
“The core of our business looks at the quality of seeds in Canada,” explains Foster. “We put a grade on the seed based on the Canadian certified pedigree seed system. Seed, before it can be sold in Canada, has to run through an establishment like ours. Essentially what we are looking at is physical purity, making sure the seed is clean of weeds and contaminants that are troublesome to crop production. We also look for diseases and germination.”
She goes on to say, “Chile came about as a result of us joining the International Seed Testing Association, which is a global organization… It is the highest standing you can get in seed testing in the world. We have worked very closely with the seed processors there, and their in house laboratories, to ensure their testing is being done according to our specifications. In order for their seeds to pass the Canadian test, it would have to be tested according to Canadian methods and procedures.”
Foster heads down to Chile every January with her team and remains until March as her work in Canada is winding down for the season.
“As we are going into spring in Canada; they are going into winter. So we are there in the time they start harvesting to the time the fruit is put on the boats to come back to Canada.”
Foster admits working in Chile has been a bit of an eye opener. The agricultural systems of the two countries are just so different.
“There is a lot of knowledge flowing between both countries. Farming there is of a much smaller scale, but, at the end of the day, they’ve got a long ways to go in terms of production. It surprises me how labour intensive it still is. Labour is so much cheaper there; so you see more people on the ground then you would here. For example, one person might just plant by hand all day. Here it is automated. There is no way you could do it here like that.”
Foster gives an example to illustrate her point.
“There was this situation where one girl was hand-planting all day,” recalls Foster. “Well, I said I am going to teach you a different way of doing this. She said: ‘No, No. Don’t. Because I will lose my job.’ I said, no actually what I am going to teach you to do is going to help you do your job better.
“Funny as this may sound, we went and bought just an ordinary hand-held vacuum cleaner, and we put a seed head to put on it. So you turn it on and it basically sucks the seed onto the head. We were planting ten samples in an hour where she was doing, say, ten samples in three hours.
“She saw technology as a negative until we explained that this allowed her a little more time to do something else. Rather than as I am going to lose my job.”
Foster has seen immense improvements in agriculture in her time in Chile, and she is proud to be a part of helping to make some of it happen.
“It’s been interesting to be there, because we have seen Chile go from a third world country to a second world country,” says Foster. “They have adopted new technology. They have adopted a lot of our techniques. And it has been a huge difference in terms of their understanding of what’s needed in order to keep the door open (to Canada).
“ I think Canada can be very proud of having Canadians down there respectfully working with these people to help improve their industry. I would like to see it go further to places like Africa where it is really, really needed, you know?”
Foster has also gained a huge insight into how agricultural commodities and seeds go from the fields of countries around the world into the global marketplace. She says it is awe-inspiring to think about.
“You realize it’s not just contained in Canada. Seed is going all over the world. And that’s why it is so important to have quality standards in place to make it so in any country that seed is accepted anywhere… With the standards in place, it brings uniformity to it in terms of methods and procedures.”