Perfect Storm on grain transport front puts farmers behind the eight-ball

By Tim Kalinowski


Tom Steve, general manager of the Alberta Wheat and Barley Commissions, says this post-harvest season has brought a litany of disasters for farmers trying to get their grain to market by rail.

“We have kind of dubbed that one ‘the perfect storm,’” he states. “When you look at all the things that could go wrong, including a few derailments, mudslides and heavy rains in Vancouver, we feel like we can’t get a break here.”

Add to that blockades and strikes, and it makes for a few sleepless nights for farmers trying to sell some grain to get some cashflow going prior to spring seeding.

“It’s not all attributable to the blockades, but I would say the rail blockades are adding insult to injury to an already difficult situation,” Steve says, referring to the Wet-suwet-en protests which blocked rail access in several parts of the country in February.

“We had a very challenging harvest in Alberta this year. We coined the term ‘harvest from hell,’ and it really was, depending on where you farmed, drought conditions in the south and extreme wet conditions in central and northern Alberta.

“About 10 per cent of the crop is still in the fields in Alberta, and that has to be harvested in the spring. And some areas, there is up to 40 per cent of the crop where farmers still have to try to harvest.

“That was the start of it,” he states, “and then we had a CN strike for eight days in November at the peak of the shipping season. And that set us back significantly.

“We do ship grain 52 weeks of the year,” adds Steve, “but at that time of the year CN and CP Rail are both committed to delivering roughly 5,600 cars a week to country elevators across Western Canada. And in CN’s case, the service essentially ground to a halt.”

But wait, he says, there’s more.

“So we were still trying to recover from that, and then we got into cold spell in January,” he explains. “We had about 10 days of -30 C. That slows the trains down considerably because they have a lot of difficulty with their braking systems. Coinciding with that, we had heavy rains in on the west coast, particularly in Vancouver which is our main shipping port, and that makes it very difficult to load grain in torrential rains. And that, again, slows the system down.

“And now, on top of it all, we had the blockades which shut down the CN system for a period of time.”

Steve says he is not exaggerating when he says some farmers’ livelihoods are at stake in this difficult shipping season.

“We respect there needs to be dialogue and that people have the right to protest, but when it starts to affect the livelihoods of significant segments of the economy, and in this case the farmers I represent, who is going to be held accountable if we have farmers that are forced into bankruptcy because they haven’t been able to move the grain they had to offer on top of all the challenges they have already had?

“It creates a level of frustration.”

Steve worries the federal government, and elected officials generally, don’t understand the collateral damage that has already been caused to farmers to date over these cumulative disruptions.

“You would be surprised to learn how sometimes the elected officials don’t realize the impact,” he says. “For example, the fact we move grain 52 weeks of the year and we rely on that pipeline to be open, and there isn’t a lot of surge capacity. So if we lose 5,000 cars a week on CN on a given week, you don’t just allocate 10,000 cars the following week because the rail system doesn’t have the capacity to add more trains on one or, in some cases, twin tracks. The system takes weeks and months to catch up from any interruption.”

Steve says he hopes if blockades become an ongoing off and on again thing this year that the federal government acts more swiftly to open rail-lines than they have to date.

“We would like to see an increased sense of urgency on the part of the Government of Canada to resolve the issue,” he confirms. “We move grain 52 weeks of the year. We just don’t have a crop coming off in September and October, and move all of it at once. It is staged throughout the calendar year so any interruption at all can quite a devastating impact on the bottom line of farmers.”