Thunder Bay shipping season starts early

Eastbound grain shipments through the Port of Thunder Bay are off to a good start in 2017, thanks to an early break-up of winter ice and ample grain stocks in storage at the port.

Tim Heney, chief executive officer at the Port of Thunder Bay, said the port welcomed its first vessel of the 2017 shipping season — the MV Manitoulin — on March 24.

The Manitoulin picked up a load of grain from Richardson’s main terminal and delivered it to Buffalo, New York.

Its arrival represented the earliest start to a shipping season at Thunder Bay since 2008.

“It’s been a good start,” said Heney.

“So far we’ve shipped 262,000 tonnes of cargo … and I think 210,000 of that was grain. Tonnage-wise, that’s really good (for March). There was no ice and no (transit) issues so it was well above average. Back in 2014, we weren’t even open (until April 21).”

Grain shipments through the Port of Thunder Bay showed a noticeable spike over the past three years.

Annual grain handlings have averaged nearly 7.95 million tonnes since 2014.

Annual handlings were slightly less than 5.85 million tonnes in the five years preceding 2014.

Heney said the port was not exactly sure how the elimination of the Canadian Wheat Board would affect its overall grain volumes.

However, with four full shipping seasons now in the books, it is clear that the port’s grain volumes benefited significantly from grain market deregulation.

“After the wheat board was eliminated, nobody really knew what was going to happen,” Heney said.

In terms of port traffic, “we can now say it was a positive thing, pretty much conclusively.”

Grain companies are now handling their own grain, as opposed to handling grain on behalf of the CWB and charging fees for handling, elevating and storing board grains.

“Now, it’s their grain … so they’re using (their facilities) as part of their own supply chain and they obviously find it an effective way to do things,” Heney said.

As well, European markets for Canadian pulses and high-quality durum have been steady, demand for Canadian grain is increasing in the Middle East and North Africa and more products are being shipped to Mexico.

Lentil shipments have been growing steadily, thanks to AGT Food and Ingredients.

AGT operates a direct loading facility at Thunder Bay and has been shipping products to Europe and the Middle East.

“We are seeing good growth in lentils, and I believe canola was a record here last year as well,” Heney said.

Projected grain handlings through the Port of Thunder Bay are expected to remain around eight million tonnes per year.

Heney said Thunder Bay does not expect any negative impact as a result of expanded export capacity at other Canadian ports, most notably Vancouver.

Limitations in westbound rail capacity should ensure stable grain volumes at Thunder Bay for the foreseeable future.

The recent trend toward higher grain yields and greater productivity in the western Canadian grain sector should also contribute to steady grain volumes heading east, Heney added.

Total grain storage capacity at the Port of Thunder Bay is estimated at 1.2 million tonnes.

Contact brian.cross@producer.com

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