Decision pending on Weyburn terminal’s future

Another chapter will be added to the story of Weyburn Inland Terminal Feb. 28 when shareholders vote on a $94.6 million purchase offer from Parrish & Heimbecker.

Shareholders usually follow without a lot of argument when a board of directors unanimously recommends such a deal. However, WIT has a history of vigorous debate and surprising decisions, so nothing is assured. A two-thirds majority is needed for the deal to proceed.

Deana Driver wrote Just a Bunch of Farmers in 2001 to help commemorate WIT’s 25th anniversary. Based on her interviews, it’s amazing that Canada’s first farmer-owned terminal has remained that way all these years.

WIT was built because farmers were fed up with the grain handling system in the 1970s. Elevators were designed for storage rather than throughput, farmers weren’t paid for the protein content of their wheat nor for their dockage, the Canadian Wheat Board was all powerful and many farmers were disenchanted with Saskatchewan Wheat Pool.

Many supporters were members of the Palliser Wheat Growers, which later became the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association. Major opposition to the project came from Sask Pool, the National Farmers Union, Saskatchewan’s NDP government and even some churches.

Big was bad. It would close down surrounding smaller elevators, and the heavy truck traffic would wreck the road system. Besides, what did a bunch of farmers know about running a terminal?

Proponents countered by saying grain handling had to become more efficient, and farmers should be leading the way.

Money was eventually raised and the $5.5 million facility was officially opened in November 1976.

However, the critics were right. Farmers didn’t know how to run a first-of-its-kind terminal, and the early years were a calamity of errors.

Undercapitalized from the start, WIT paid trucking premiums it couldn’t afford. Equipment malfunctions and staff errors caused expensive grain mixtures. There was a protracted legal battle between WIT and the building contractor, and the accounting system was a shambles.

With bickering within the board of directors and high staff turnover, the operation faced bankruptcy several times. In the end, however, hard work, refinancing and dedication saved the day. The company was back on its feet by the early 1980s, only to be hit with many years of drought and low grain volumes. It took until the 1990s for WIT to earn good profits, which spawned numerous expansions and acquisitions.

United Grain Growers was poised to buy up to 40 percent of WIT’s shares in 1998, but farmer shareholders were split on the proposal and the battle was vigorous. In the end, WIT remained entirely independent.

What happens Feb. 28 is up to shareholders. The debate is intense: sell and take a good return on investment from a long-standing Canadian grain handler or continue the founders’ original dream?

Whatever happens, WIT has had a huge impact:

  • Most grain is now moved in 100 car blocks that receive freight incentives.
  • Grain can be cleaned on the Prairies with the screenings used by the local livestock industry.
  • Farmers are paid for the protein in their wheat and durum.
  • Farmers can own condominium storage space at terminals.

All these advances and more were pioneered by WIT. A bunch of farmers can make a difference.

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