Grain handling system needs repair

The mountains of grain and canola that have accumulated over the Prairies after this year’s bumper crop are beginning to cast a nasty shadow on Canada’s rail transportation system.

Last week a number of frustrated prairie farm organizations expressed their exasperation over the inability of rail companies to move their product to market and the federal government’s impotence to do anything about it.

Their frustration has been fuelled, no doubt, by agriculture minister Gerry Ritz’s comment last month that, in his opinion, the railways were doing an “adequate” job moving crops to market.

It may be adequate for someone whose income comes from taxpayers, but it isn’t adequate for those farmers who need their grain and oilseed to reach market before they can see a payday.

The rail companies point out they are moving wheat and canola as fast as the supply chain can handle it. Canadian National Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway each say they’re running about 5,500 grain cars a week — a record amount.

The farmers point out these same companies are jamming up the tracks with shipments of oil and other resources and that may be causing agricultural product, which has a price cap on what the railways can charge to transport it, to be shunted off to the side.

In the past, wheat farmers could depend on CWB to battle for them when it came to putting pressure on the rail companies to get the grain to market.

When the board had a monopoly on selling grain overseas, it also held considerable market influence.

Now it’s left to Ritz, who believes things are working adequately as they are, and people such as Blair Rutter of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association to de-fend farmers’ rights.

Rutter, by the way, is less confident that the rail companies are doing an adequate job, pointing out that the number of tankers now hauling oil off the Prairies has grown exponentially over the past few years, and that is bound to “affect the number of slots available for grain.”

But the truth is, the backlog the farmers are experiencing speaks to a much greater problem for Canada’s transportation capacity. Oil companies — and governments — are already having to sacrifice a premium for their product because there isn’t enough pipeline to haul it to market.

One has to have some sympathy for the rail companies, considering the Canadian Prairies produced so much product this year there isn’t the storage, elevator or terminal capacity to handle it, much less the rail capacity to haul it.

But the concerns expressed by the farm groups reflect a deeper distrust of the government’s willingness or ability to address this issue. And, for farmers, waiting for a long-term solution while their grain sits in bags on the field and the bills pile up isn’t a viable option.

Mr. Ritz would be wise to take their concerns more seriously and rather than simply provide a holistic look at how the grain is moving, also try to come up with some solutions to reduce the size of those mountains.

This opinion editorial was originally published in The Saskatoon StarPhoenix and was written by that newspaper’s editorial board.


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