Farmers urged to demand better grain movement

Hold ag minister accountable | Gov’t has role to play in fixing transportation problems

Grain growers are not demanding enough from their federal agriculture minister on the transportation file, according to two CropSphere 2014 presenters.

Glen Hodgson, chief economist of the Conference Board of Canada, was asked for his thoughts on rail transportation during a question and answer session following his presentation.

He said he delivered a similar global economic outlook presentation in November at a Canada Grains Council symposium in Ottawa. 

Federal agriculture minister Gerry Ritz also spoke at that event and Hodgson was surprised he wasn’t taken to task for the shoddy performance of the country’s grain transportation system.

“Frankly, I think the producers were way too soft on the minister because he’s your champion,” said Hodgson. “Maybe we’ve invested inadequately in transportation in this country, so I think to some extent you have to really make your champion be your champion and go to battle for you.”

Hodgson was surprised as an independent observer to see the easy ride Ritz got at the meeting.

“I think there are times when you have to hold the minister accountable,” he said.

Larry Weber, analyst with Weber Commodities Inc., also attempted to marshal the forces.

“I’ve been hard on our agriculture minister over the past five years because we haven’t had a vision for the future,” he told farmers listening to his pulse market outlook. “You didn’t have to be a Rhodes Scholar to know that Vancouver was going to be a wreck at some point in time.”

Grain companies are trying to ship 6.1 million tonnes of grain stored at primary elevators through 1.1 million tonnes of west coast terminal capacity.

“Most of you guys think we’ve got these huge, massive terminals in Vancouver and we don’t,” said Weber.

He said 22.73 million tonnes of Western Canada’s 75 million tonne crop had been moved through December. At that pace there will be an additional 20 million tonnes of carryout as of July 31 on top of the five million tonnes carried in.

“We need 77,500, 10,000 bushel bins to store what we’re not going to move this year.”

Weber urged farmers to complain to Ottawa about the shortcomings of Canada’s grain transportation system.

“Farmers have to make the difference on this file and if they don’t here’s what you’re up against — the railways have 170 lobbyists registered in Ottawa. 1-7-0,” said Weber.

Joan Heath, former chair of the Saskatchewan Canola Development Commission, said growers are frustrated but they are not the types who pick up placards and start marching.

She said many farmers want to hold Ritz’s feet to the fire.

“I guess my worry is we have a lot of finger pointing right now. That’s not necessarily helpful,” said Heath.

Grain transportation woes are not a quick fix and while government has a role to play in finding a long-term solution, it can’t resolve all the problems.

“It’s so much more complex and bigger than that,” she said.

Farmers are agitated and wondering what commodity groups are doing on their behalf.

Heath said a lot is going on behind the scenes but progress is so minimal that there is nothing worth reporting back to growers, which leaves them with the impression that nothing is being done.

“This is an ongoing issue for us and we’re as worried as any other farmer out there,” she told growers attending SaskCanola’s annual general meeting held at CropSphere 2014.

Heath believes the fight for federal rail service legislation took a lot out of farm groups and their leaders. They are disappointed with the outcome of the legislation.

“There is a lot of farm leaders that have worked in transportation for well above 25 years and to me they seem to have transportation fatigue,” said Heath.

“They were discouraged and they were worn out. It’s hard to get reignited. I guess the mess we’re in right now is going to reignite us.”

Heath hopes progress can be made on the grain transportation file during the legislative review of the Canada Transportation Act scheduled for 2015. She said Ritz has indicated the review may be bumped up to 2014.

“We will definitely be all behind that,” she said.

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