By Rod Nickel
WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - For most of the past year, western Canadian farmers have braced for the rush of competition that will follow the end of the Canadian Wheat Board's 69-year-long monopoly on grain marketing in August.
Now, they're preparing for the possibility of seeing less than expected.
The fertile region's biggest grain handler, Viterra, said on Thursday it had hired advisers and set a process to vet takeover interest, the first sign of a much-anticipated frenzy to take or build a position in the western Canadian wheat market as it opens to competition for the first time since World War Two.
But whether farmers will win or lose from the transaction depends heavily on who buys the former farm cooperative, which has a commanding 45 percent share of rural elevator storage - the backbone of the supply chain for getting crops from the world's No. 8 grain grower to global markets.
Unlike the cool Canadian response to some big deals involving foreign bidders, western Prairie farmers aren't vocally worried about whether Viterra retains the Maple Leaf stamp.
They're far more concerned with ensuring that the move toward a freer market isn't compromised in the final furlong.
"There's a fear on our side that an existing multinational like Cargill that's already in this country would buy them and take away a lot of competition" among handlers vying for farmers' grain, said Alberta farmer Lynn Jacobson, president of Wild Rose Agricultural Producers.
Swiss trader Glencore, a respected and sometimes feared name in global metal and oil markets, is teaming with Canadian farm retailer Agrium and No. 2 grain handler Richardson International Ltd on a bid that would break Viterra into several chunks, according to industry sources.
A scenario in which Agrium scooped up Viterra's roughly 260 farm-supply stores would leave farmers with few options for buying annual supplies of seed, chemicals and fertilizer. Privately owned Richardson may be in line to take on Viterra's food-processing plants, like crushers and mills, but farmers fear it may also aggressively expand its one-quarter share of western Canada's grain-handling capacity.
"If they control more of the outlets, that's a concern for us," said Jacobson, who grows grain, oilseed and pulse crops.
U.S.-based Cargill holds about 15 percent of the region's grain-handling capacity, according to industry estimates, and would face the double whammy in Ottawa's eyes of being a foreign company and one that already is a player in Canada, raising competition concerns if it entered a bid.
Because of Viterra's size, Canada's arms-length Competition Bureau would review any takeover. The regulator flexed its muscles during the last major round of Canadian farm M&A in 2007 when, to satisfy competition concerns, Saskatchewan Wheat Pool sold some elevator and port assets to Cargill as it took over Agricore United. The newly formed company became Viterra.
Jacobson said prairie farm groups, relatively quiet in the early going, plan to lobby government with their concerns once there is a formal bid.
FARMERS SHRUG AT FOREIGN OWNERSHIP
Viterra, with roots in long-running farmer cooperatives in Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba, is attracting plenty of foreign interest, from Glencore, U.S.-based Bunge, Archer Daniels Midland and perhaps others, industry sources say.
But farmers mostly shrug at the idea of their former cooperatives falling under Swiss, U.S. or Asian control.
"From a local level, it's probably going to be the same," said Weyburn, Saskatchewan farmer Darren Sterling. "Change the name on the building."
ADM and Bunge would present less concern about competition, since they are not big players in western Canadian grain handling or farm product sales. Farmers are also familiar with the names, as they sell canola to prairie crushing plants owned by Archer Daniels and Bunge.
But with Viterra in play just as the CWB monopoly winds down, farmers have two big changes to factor in as they gear up for spring planting. The CWB handled the marketing for farmers' wheat and barley, something they will now have to learn for themselves.
Western Canadian farmers are touching up seeding plans before steering tractors onto fields in mid-April. For the first time in generations, farmers have been able to sign forward-delivery contracts with handlers for wheat and barley, because of the monopoly's end.
Viterra was the most aggressive early on in securing farmers' expected grain production after Ottawa passed its monopoly-killing law in December.
Sterling has agreed to sell some of his expected canola harvest to Viterra, and doubts that any takeover of the company will have much practical impact on him.
"I just think it's going to carry on. A contract's a contract."
Canada is the biggest exporter of spring wheat, canola, oats and durum wheat, with the vast majority of those crops grown in the western provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.
Selkirk, Manitoba farmer Doug Chorney agreed to buy canola and soybean seed from Viterra, as well as dry fertilizer, and said he has no concerns about those supplies being jeopardized by a foreign takeover.
With farmer cooperatives and wooden elevators long behind prairie agriculture, and the Wheat Board monopoly on its way into history, farmers are so far a clear-eyed, practical lot in viewing Viterra's possible sale.
"There's no sentiment about it, no loyalty anymore," Jacobson said. "It's all business because it's not the same company anymore."
(Editing by Dale Hudson)