Derek Brewin, professor and head of the Department of Agribusiness and Agricultural Economics, University of Manitoba

Connect with Derek Brewin on LinkedIn.
Connect with Derek Brewin on LinkedIn.

Derek Brewin is professor and head of the Department of Agribusiness and Agricultural Economics at the University of Manitoba (U of M). He earned his B.Sc. at the University of Alberta, followed by an M.Sc. at the University of Saskatchewan (USask) and PhD at Penn State University. Brewin has worked at U of M since 2003 and lives in Winnipeg, dangerously close to the best ice cream in the city. 

Where did you work before U of M?

I started this job after I finished my PhD, and before that I worked as a research associate at USask in the Strategic Development Fund. Prior to that I worked at the Canadian Wheat Board as a corporate advisor, a policy advisor for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) and a lender for Farm Credit Canada (FCC). 

What got you interested in this area of work? 

There are so many opportunities in agriculture. Once I got the B.Sc., I kept getting wonderful offers. I was fortunate that FCC needed somebody like me when I came out of my program. Working and learning about how FCC forecasted prices led me to go back for my M.Sc. I thought I would return to work with FCC, but when I finished my degree there was an opportunity at the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA) in transportation policy, and once I got into policy I’ve stayed interested. 

Tell us a bit about what you’re working on at U of M.

I teach an agriculture marketing course where we evaluate the ag supply chain from the producer to the consumer. We know consumers are the main drivers, but ag supply chains are complex. To be able to work out the different steps in the beef, grain and oilseeds supply chain, or livestock supply chains, requires understanding of a lot of firms and agents.

When you’re thinking about the whole supply chain, the incentive to grow at the beginning, or the farmer’s bottom line, is a big part of why there is supply at all. This is something I’m always watching as part of my classes. I ask my students to think about what the price of canola is in Manitoba, for example, and how that factors into the price of the bottle of oil in a supermarket. Thinking about how those prices are all connected and how they cover the costs of processing to transporting helps us understand the market better. 

The Research to explore socio-economic impacts of disruptions on Agri-food supply chains and markets project, funded by Manitoba Crop Alliance, is about building capacity in this area, as there is growing demand for it. 

COVID-19 had a huge impact on food markets and in the food supply chains, there was a large shift from people eating out to buying retail and feeding themselves. That was definitely a big disruptor. The barriers put up during the protests of the grain supply chain at the beginning of 2020 also slowed down some grain transportation and led to backlogs in terms of movement. These are some of the areas we focus on for this research. Learning about current and historic disruptions, like the Great Canadian Grain Logistics Crisis of 2013-14, is what I teach to my students and what drives my research. 

What can you say about the value of farmers providing funding and support to your organization?

Some of the evidence on public sector investment in agriculture shows that it pays off 40 to 1. I’ve done some research on innovation systems and I feel really good in terms of the economics of it. It can be a really slow process; sometimes it’s 40 years between when something is invented and when it has an impact on yield. I think, in the long run, farmers are going to be a lot better off for the research investments made through the check-offs. Economists need to keep checking that return on research as well as contribute in their own areas, especially in training new analysts. 

How does that farmer funding and support directly benefit farmers? 

For my work, we are looking backwards to learn. Learning more about these big interruptions through a few projects with Alankrita Goswami, we are collecting evidence from disruptions like BSE, COVID-19 and the transportation breakdowns in 2013-14. The more we understand these, we can work to determine whether or not current policy could help us get through a similar interruption. For us as economists, it’s a good thing to make sure the incentives have stayed in the right place to invest and monitor these systems in order to keep our supply chains functioning.

How do you spend your time outside of work? 

I enjoy reading about economics and international economics, as well as history and historical fiction; I really enjoy books by James Michener. I like playing old-timer hockey, curling and occasionally camping. Every year I go on a pretty serious canoe trip, a tradition that began back during my master’s.

How do you celebrate agriculture?

The first thing that came to mind was working the calves at fall. Some of our own work was tough sledding with just my dad, brother and I. But sometimes we would tackle the calves as a community with friends from the bigger ranches and we had calf weaning/branding events. It was a real celebration of the year’s calf crop and everybody getting together in a very traditional way, one they were doing 200 years ago and are still doing today. For me, that is a special event and a way to celebrate agriculture. 

Who or what inspires you?

I’ve met some leaders in the agriculture sector, some students included, who really inspire me – some who have received awards of merit from the faculty here. These leaders come in to be celebrated and receive these awards, and we get to hear their stories and all about their great careers. It’s nice to hear how people have changed the Manitoba sector, and it’s really inspiring for our students.

Connect with Derek Brewin on LinkedIn.