Grain Growers of Canada is urging producers across the country to join forces in lobbying their members of Parliament for changes to the broken grain transportation system.
The group is urging farmers to call their MP and talk about “the rail service issues that are personally affecting you and your farm.”
“This is certainly a serious situation for farmers, and we have to get that message out there,” said Acme grain producer and Grain Growers vice-president Matt Sawyer.
Not being able to move grain is causing serious cash flow issues for many producers, but stalled grain movement could also cause lasting damage to export sales, he said.
A Japanese ship was recently moved out of Vancouver’s port and sent south to take on American wheat, the Grain Growers said in its message to producers. There are also reports every anchorage spot in Vancouver’s harbour is taken and that’s forced ships waiting to take on grain to wait off the east coast of Vancouver Island. Sawyer said he’s heard ships are “parked as far north as Nanaimo.”
“We must be able to get our grain in an export position in a timely manner to meet our obligations, and if we can’t do that, the reputation of us as a reliable supplier in Canada is put in jeopardy,” said Sawyer, who is fresh from a trade mission to Japan.
“For us to lose a shipment of grain when it was so hard to establish these relationships to another country is really unacceptable. We’re proving to the world that we’re an unreliable source.”
Pressure on the railways is ramping up from both farmers and governments. Alberta Agriculture Minister Verlyn Olson travelled to Winnipeg last week to meet with federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz and urge him to impose a system of “immediate” cash penalties on railways that don’t meet obligations on grain delivery.
The current federal Fair Rail Freight Service Act provides for fines to be levied against the railways for poor service, but the act’s provisions “are not adequate” and are also subject to a lengthy arbitration process, Olson said.
“I’m not saying the railway companies don’t have their own challenges, they certainly do,” Olson said prior to his meeting with Ritz.
But citing severe winter weather conditions for the slowdown in grain movement isn’t an adequate excuse, he said.
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“I don’t think that in Western Canada, we can let ourselves be surprised that we have bad weather in winter,” he said.
Sawyer isn’t buying that reason either.
“We know that there are efficiencies that could have been created to deal with these problems,” he said, calling it “the cost of doing business.”
Sawyer said he would rather see the whole value chain work together to develop short- and long-term solutions, but he isn’t ruling out hitting the railways in their bottom line.
“Maybe that is the best thing, to penalize the heck out of the railways.”
Ritz announced a month ago that railways will have to report more frequently on grain movement and said he hoped that would help identify bottlenecks and other problems in the system.
But the bottom line is that western Canadian farmers are pushing up yields and last fall’s bumper harvest can’t be viewed as a one-time event, said Sawyer.
“We produced a bumper crop using the best science and technology available to feed the world, and our transportation system needs to be responsive to the needs of western Canadian growers,” he said.