Weekend Warrior

Canadian International Grains Institute

Great Grains

By Ian Tizzard

Since 1972, the Canadian International Grains Institute has used research and education to move knowledge of Canadian crops up the value chain, showing bakers in Barcelona and millers in Manila why Canadian field crops make the best ingredients.

“This is the highest flour mill in the world,” says Gordon Carson, in front of a machine capable of milling up to 12 tonnes of grain a day. Near the machine, a table covered in small piles of flour shows 40 different “fractions”, from a fine powder on the top corner, to a coarser pile on the bottom. “A lot of people are surprised to see a full-size flour mill on the 11th floor of a downtown building,” says the CIGI director of cereal technology. The CIGI offices, classrooms, labs and its staff of 30 people take up three-and-a-half floors (10 to 12 and half of the first) in the Canadian Grain Commission at 303 Main St. “My office is right below this and I can’t hear or feel a thing,” says Carson, waving his arm at the big miller.

Past the milling lab, the smell of warm bread—small “pup loaves” fresh out of the oven—greets visitors to the test bakery. Carson calls it “scientific art”, where bakers reverse engineer tortillas, chapatti and pita. “We can produce any bread product,” says Carson. On the same floor, a long Ohtake brand noodle-making machine stays running, due to the growing popularity of Asian noodles.

In the baking lab, Carson picks up a palm-sized circle of dough from a line of numbered dumplings, each one made with a slightly different grade of flour. “It’s kind of like pierogi dough, but this is just a little softer,” says Carson. He explains that the preferred feel and taste of products varies from one country to the next. For example, the Japanese like their noodles firmer than the Chinese do. “There’s 

something different in just about every situation. It’s impossible to pick just one thing for everybody,” he says.  “Selling to 70 different countries is like having to order pizza for 70 people.”

CIGI operates with a yearly budget of about $7 million, funded by the Canadian Wheat Board, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the Canadian Grain Commission. Their work involves the development, growth and uses of all Canadian field crops, which includes wheat, barley, pulses and oilseeds.

CIGI work extends to market identification, too, supporting long-term plans for new grain products. For example, Carson describes how breeders first grew Canadian strains of hard white wheat in 1973. “To bring a new variety on line from the first cross takes about 10 or 15 years,” says Carson, “but this wheat was brand new to us.” About 15 years ago, market forecasters identified potential uses for it. It became commercially available in 2003 as an ingredient for Asian noodles.

Aside from primary product research, they also present programs and courses to educate industry players and potential customers from around the world. Internal programs give seminars and courses to domestic students; bilateral programs focus on needs of producers in a particular country or region. “We show people how our products can be used in their own products, or in new products,” says Carson. He describes programs that cover everything from breeding and production to processing and transportation.

“We’ve instructed 25,000 people from 110 countries since 1972. We’ve averaged 45 to 50 programs a year, but last year we presented 75,” says Carson. Classroom A is no stranger to the rhythms of Kyrgyz, French, Farsi and Korean.

The organization’s global reach is exemplified by the wall-sized map in the lobby. In late June, a group of Ecuadorians pointed to it, smiling at the long distance from their home. The South American baking company they work for plans to start using Canadian wheat exclusively in its products.

Scores of class pictures from 30 years of programs line the walls in the tenth-floor offices. “This group came for the Asian noodle program,” says Carson, pointing to a year-old group photograph of delegates. They were from a Chinese milling company that wanted to expand into noodle processing. “They came here to learn how to make Chinese noodles,” says Carson, who was thrilled to be able to show them how.

Most of the programs take place somewhere else, though, with Carson and others jetting around the globe to meet new and potential customers. “I burn passports out,” he admits. This global grain ambassador spends about 30 per cent of his time travelling; helping sell Canadian field crops and learning more about the latest international food market trends.

“I don’t even see the winters here,” says Carson, who spent last winter in the Persian Gulf, Asia and South America. This year, a “new crops mission” will take him to 13 cities in eight countries over two weeks. “We’re all over,” he says. “People around the world know us better than people here.”