Canadian Wheat Board director Bill Woods says that around home in Eston, Sask., the joke among him and most of his friends used to be, “What does the CWB have in common with Walmart? Lowest prices every day.”
They opposed the board’s monopoly because it took away their freedom. Woods echoed that notion.
“I opposed the CWB, but I really didn’t know how it worked or what it was… sometimes older farmers would tell me I didn’t understand, but I didn’t listen.
“Then, a group of us in the area bought the Eston- Elrose-Dinsmuir short line. That was when we stared power in the face, in the form of the grain companies and the railways,” said Woods.
In the spring of 1997, Woods went to haul his grain to his local elevator and was told “I’m plugged. Can’t get a train, but I can get you a heck of a deal at Kindersley.”
Woods saw the writing on the wall. His local elevator would close, the rail line would go and he’d have to deliver to a big new concrete elevator 68 km away. Woods and his neighbours figured they could simply order producer cars, the right of every farmer.
“We were told we were living in the past, that using our local line was inefficient,” he says. “But, we felt we had to do something, and we applied for a unit train of 100 cars.”
To get their cars, the first-ever unit train of producer cars, the Saskatchewan farmers had to meet with the Canadian Grain Commission, the grain companies and the railways. They didn’t know much about any of these agencies, but they didn’t trust the CWB or the others, so they met all three together.
“The grain commission said we could have the cars, but only if we had a sale for the grain,” said Woods. “The CWB stepped in and told the meeting they had a sale and they were about to open a wheat quota and we could deliver on that. The grain company had no choice but to accept our grain at their terminal. The railway wanted the lines closed, but we’ve been able to ship our producer cars.”
Later, the short-line company wanted to lodge a level-of-service complaint against the railway. The CWB helped the group, found them a lawyer who understood railway regulations and helped them through the intricacies of delivering their own grain to a terminal.
“My education on the grain trade and what the CWB does for farmers began with getting the producer cars. It went on with many, many phone calls to (then-CWB chair) Larry Hill,” Woods said. “The more I learned about why we have the CWB, the longer my list of benefits from the CWB grew. On the other side, all I had was ‘freedom.’ It didn’t balance.”
Woods decided to run as a CWB director and a single-desk proponent.
Last year, Prairie farmers loaded 12,784 producer cars, just shy of the previous year’s 12,934 cars, from 120 loading sites. Proponents say that represents a saving of $11 million in handling fees, or $600 to $1,600 per car. They also say grain companies have become more competitive where short lines help farmers use producer cars. According to the CWB, farmers in those areas, are offered better trucking incentives and lower handling charges.
Of the total shipped last year, only 463 or less than three per cent of producer cars carried non-board grains.