Pulse Beat Individual Articles

MPSG Abroad: Trade Missions 

Scott Persall and Melvin RattaiAshley Robinson, writer and Toban Dyck, writer and farmer

The connection between a Manitoba soybean field and chocolate soy milk dispenser in Tokyo, Japan may be tenuous. That is, until you see it for yourself and hear from the buyer who ordered the product from Canada. Suddenly, the fog lifts, and your brain is able to draw a clear line between the crops we grow and the global customers who buy them, eat them, reject them and praise them. The pulses and soybeans we plant, bring to maturity and sell are interwoven into the cultures of millions – if not billions – of people around the globe. The following stories from directors at Manitoba Pulse & Soybean Growers (MPSG) illustrate the connection farmers have to people, places and identity.

Melvin Rattai

Trade mission: Thailand and Japan  

When: January 2024

Canadian team in BangkokBeausejour, MB farmer and MPSG Board Chair Melvin Rattai hadn’t tried Wagyu beef before he went to Asia. He also didn’t truly comprehend the huge opportunity Asia represents to Canada and Manitoba’s soybean market. 

In January, Rattai joined a Soy Canada delegation on a trade mission to Asia. Representing MPSG, Rattai’s perspective was about to expand.

“We are starting to grow Identity Preserved (IP) soybeans here in Manitoba, and it’s important to know where they are going and what is expected from us,” says Rattai, reflecting on his purpose for agreeing to the two-week trip. “These markets are looking for specific lines of conventional soybeans, which we can start growing in Manitoba, so that’s a brand-new market for us farmers.”

Landing first in Bangkok, Thailand, Rattai was immediately immersed in learning about the demands importers have on the soy products they bring in from Canada and elsewhere. Hearing this directly from international buyers struck a chord with Rattai. The link between his farm and Asia became clear and meaningful. The discovery that these beans were transformed into a variety of products underscored the versatility and global reach of the crops he and others grow in Manitoba. 

“We went to a factory where they bought a fair amount of Canadian conventional soybeans. They made soy milk and soy chocolate milk, and even a form of yogurt from it, which tasted quite good,” explains Rattai. “That was one of the highlights of this part of the trip. We had a pretty good crowd, probably about 50 people, that we presented to in Bangkok. These were people who were buying our soybeans.”

Moving into February, the mission continued to Tokyo, Japan, where Rattai presented to an audience of about 100 tradespeople at the Canadian Embassy. 

“It was impressive to see the interest in our methods of farming, the quality of crops we produce, and the stringent standards we adhere to back in Manitoba,” recalls Rattai. “In Japan, the factories we went to and the people we talked to were using conventional soybeans from Canada and the U.S.”

These presentations and the engagement that happened in and around them revealed a strong and growing demand for non-GMO soybeans in Asia, with a clear preference for quality over quantity.

“It’s a restrictive market,” says Rattai. “They want to see 40 per cent protein and a larger and consistent seed size. Also, the oil content should be around 19 per cent, and they wanted their soybeans to be at 14 per cent moisture or drier. They’re looking for quality and they are paying a premium for it. Soy is everywhere. You can go to a dispenser, put your change in and get a can of soy milk or chocolate soy milk. That’s their regular milk. It’s all soy products.”

Rattai discovered the Japanese market, in particular, has an interest in the quality-assurance practices implemented by Canadian farmers. 

“We presented a slideshow of pictures showing them where the beans are grown, the equipment we use, where and how we store them, and the various steps we take to make sure the crops we grow are of the highest quality possible,” says Rattai. 

He also recalls there being a lot of interest in the fact that his farm is multi-generational and has been around for 125 years. This, he adds, “Seemed to carry a lot of weight.”  

The mission highlighted the challenges and opportunities shared among the global agricultural industry. “We saw firsthand the need for small- and medium-scale farmers to innovate and meet international demands, as well as the importance of maintaining high standards to stay competitive in the global market,” says Rattai. QR code for trade missions article

The experience reinforced the importance of direct connections between growers and international buyers. The story of the crop – from seed to harvest – is as vital as the quality of the grain itself. But Rattai’s trip to Asia also resulted in a directive Manitoba’s pulse and soybean industry shouldn’t take lightly – markets are looking for specific varieties and they are looking for quality and consistency. 

John Preun

Trade mission: Japan, Vietnam and Malaysia John Preun

When: February 2023

St. Andrews, MB farmer John Preun didn’t fully understand how important Japan, Vietnam and Malaysia were as trade partners until he stepped foot in the Asian nations. In February 2023 he joined a Soy Canada trade mission to Asia as a representative for Manitoba. 

“You don’t know what [the country’s] parameters are for specifications. Going there, I learned a lot on how that relates to agriculture here back at home and what they are looking for to try and get them to buy more of our [crops],” Preun says. 

The MPSG board member travelled to Tokyo, Japan; Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Hanoi, Vietnam; and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. While Preun was learning about the crop import needs and wants of the countries he visited, he also found himself teaching about crop production in Canada.

“I was asked about sustainability, what do we do on our farm that makes agriculture sustainable now and into the future,” Preun explains. “I actually showed them some slides on how we collect data, how we interpret and use that data. And then also all the information from our machinery, like how many hours we’re wasting driving on the road or idling the combines too long. We get all that information so that we can figure out how to be more efficient farmers.”Dabaco Group

Preun also cleared up confusion with the grain buyers he spoke to. In Vietnam, he learned, they have a zero-tolerance policy for crop shipments with Canada thistle in them. The importers believed Canada thistle grew wild all over Canada and were quite concerned it would make its way into grain shipments. 

“What I could bring to the table is I could tell them that this is our class one noxious weed in Canada. It’s a weed that everybody’s supposed to go after, whether it’s farmers or municipalities,” Preun says. “It was important for me to bring that message forward.”

For Preun, his main takeaway from the trip was the market opportunities for Manitoba beans in Asia. He was asked by buyers if Manitoba farmers would grow more food grade beans. Preun shared that farmers would be happy to grow more beans as long as the dollars and cents are provided as beans are a riskier crop to grow. 

Throughout the trip Preun was able to try many bean-based dishes. He hadn’t known what to expect foodwise but he found himself surprised by the delicious dishes he ate.Trade session with Vietnamese government

“I’ve never tasted food as good as there. Soybeans in tofu – you can buy tofu here but it’s pretty crappy compared to what you can get in Japan especially. Trying different foods there that contained our beans – there was nothing that I couldn’t eat,” he says. 

Since returning from his trip, Preun wants to add more food grade beans into his seeding plans. This past winter he sat down and looked closely at what it would take to include beans into his planting plans, but after careful consideration he realized it wasn’t yet the right time. 

“It’s the knowledge that you come back with. The old story is there’s no sense growing something that nobody wants to buy,” Preun says.

Ben Martens 

Trade mission: European Union and United Kingdom

When: December 2023

Boissevain, MB farmer Ben Martens didn’t know exactly what to expect when he arrived in Brussels, Belgium in December 2023. The MPSG board member was taking part in a trade mission to the European Union (EU) with Pulse Canada. 

“When we hear about EU, we generally hear a lot about subsidies and restrictions. Becoming more restrictive in some of their policies in regards to pesticides and (maximum residue limits). There’s always a lot of back and forth in regards to that, and whether or not we can access their markets,” Martens says.

Canadian team in Brussels, Belgium
(L-R) Corey Loessin, Ben Martens, Kevin Auch, Greg Bartley, and Mark Walker at the Charlemagne Building in Brussels, Belgium. Photo credit: Greg Bartley, Pulse Canada

Once he arrived in Belgium, he found himself learning that EU farmer concerns were similar to their Canadian counterparts. EU farmers aren’t getting enough for their products to make farming feasible or economically sustainable. On the flipside EU consumers are dealing with inflationary pressures and finding it increasingly difficult to buy the groceries and food they want.

“A lot of people are concerned about farm ag issues and how to make the small and moderate size farmer more economically viable. The interesting part was that there were very few farmers there. It was a lot of people discussing farm issues, but there was only a handful of farmers,” Martens says.

The trade mission team attended the Canada–EU CETA Agriculture Dialogue Sustainability Workshops. This was the last round of workshops; the previous sessions were held online over the past two years. Martens attended sessions focusing on soil health where he shared information about how ag research is done in Canada through the checkoff system that funds grower organizations such as MPSG to complete research on behalf of farmers.

The second part of the trade mission saw the Pulse Canada team visit the United Kingdom to meet with crop buyers there and discuss gene editing regulations. The group met with buyers who import Manitoba edible beans into the UK to learn about potential import issues.

“The most common issue encountered by them was contamination. Whether it’d be the odd little stone or whatever, those are issues that are very important to the buyers there,” Martens explains. “Edible beans, for example, is something that they don’t grow in Britain. It’s a really good market for us and we want to do a good job of that. It’s important for us to send product there that’s above and beyond.”

Martens learned how much buyers want to meet the farmers growing the crops in Manitoba. The way crops are grown in Manitoba is very different from practices used in Europe.

“The cultural practices that we’ve engaged mainly in the Prairies — zero till, minimum till, saving moisture – those are really important in today’s world. They were very interested in how we were doing that,” he says. “We visited a couple of producers there, and some of the practices that they use were still really intensive in the cultivation and the way they work their soils.”

Through the trade mission Martens realized the importance of the Canadian ag industry’s sustainability work. While there may be a lot of questions and changing issues when it comes to sustainability, Martens says it’s crucial to continue learning. 

“I think it’s something that we want to continue to highlight and learn from other people and also provide some education and some knowledge that we can pick up,” he adds.