By Tim Kalinowski
Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures as Canada’s agriculture industry and grain transportation industry struggles to find ways to keep things moving in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Time will tell as to how we cope is really the short answer,” says Wade Sobkowich, executive director of the Western Grain Elevator Association. “So far, the grain companies are trying to operate as business as usual while protecting employees and making sure that all of the right things are done anytime they interact with people; be it within their own company or those outside of their company. They are putting in place plans to continue to operate while making sure people are properly protected.
“So far, touch wood, we haven’t seen a major impact on the supply chain because the railroads are running still and the vessel operators are still coming in to load grain at terminals. And farmers are still able to deliver into the country elevator networks.”
Grain is still moving, says Sobkowich, although labouring under a heavy burden thanks the recent blockades and other transport disruptions already felt this past winter.
“We are very full,” states Sobkowich. “Looking at the (mid-March) report from the grain monitor Quorum Corp, that report shows country elevator stocks are using 91 per cent of the system’s working capacity. That’s high; and space at the primary elevators is constrained.
“We are still recovering from all those (winter disruptions), the latest of which and most significant of which, was the blockades. That being said, the grain is moving again. So we are back to what I would call normal operations, but of course with the COVID-19 people are having to figure out how to operate in a different way.”
The picture is not quite so clear when it comes to the availability of vital spring seeding inputs, says Dave Bishop, chair of Alberta Barley.
“We have never experienced anything quite like this before,” he says. “SARS was maybe a little bit similar, but it didn’t seem to affect us a whole lot on the ag side. I am expecting some significant impacts from COVID-19, but as to what they are going to be that’s the unknown.
“I think the biggest concern is the availability for getting all our inputs for seeding this spring,” Bishop adds. “Right now, it’s far enough out that we have no issues with getting them. (Suppliers) have created some protocols on how to pick up your inputs or if they deliver them how they will deliver them.
“My worry is if something happens on that side of the chain for agriculture is we can’t get our inputs. We can’t delay seeding. We only have a certain window to put our crop in for this coming year. We cannot afford any delays there.”
Sobkowich says his WGEA members are having to business differently as well by restricting human to human contact at elevators.
Farmers are being asked to stay in their trucks in many cases and not come into the offices while their grain is unloading. Receipts are being brought out to trucks while maintaining appropriate social distancing for the safety of elevator workers and the farmers who are delivering.
“We want to keep grain moving,” he says simply. “The government has said essential supply chains will continue as normal. The intention is not to restrict the flow of goods. We are proceeding on the basis the flow of goods are not going to be restricted unnecessarily. So precautionary measures are being taken, but our intention is to continue to move grain and execute on our sales contracts.”
Bishop also hopes COVID-19 will not cause any further disruptions to the supply chain; especially if the appropriate precautions are taken. He feels the system cannot take too many more shocks as is, and hopes governments at all levels will be part of the solution as the situation unfolds.
“We are already behind in shipping our grain to market,” he emphasizes. “When they are running at capacity on the railroads as they are today, once you have something delayed it’s virtually impossible to catch up. Food is an essential item we all need. We need to keep our food supply chain going.
“I can see if things become worse, it could be pushed further up on the government’s list to make sure it is a priority to keep everything moving. And that includes getting this year’s crop seeded.”
Sobkowich says elevators are working as normal, and railways are putting in great efforts to ensure that state continues despite the COVID-19 crisis.
“It is a fluid situation, and it is rapidly evolving,” he states. “Who knows what’s going to change here in the weeks and months to come? But we’re far from being in a position where we’re talking about having to shut down the grain supply chains. We are hoping we are going to be able to continue to operate with minimal disruption.”
Bishop agrees farmers should hold onto their hats in the coming months, and make adjustments as needed.
“Everything coming down the pipe with COVID-19 is going to be reactive,” he says. “I don’t know how you can be proactive. So I would say be prepared to be isolated even more.
“I would also encourage those dealing with greater stress to lean on their families or professionals if they are having issues. That’s something we don’t speak enough about in agriculture. The stress a lot of farmers are under, you need to talk to people in order to manage that.”