Northgate gains on links with U.S. buyers

This is the second of five business features highlighting Saskatchewan companies that are finalists in the Saskatchewan Trade & Export Partnership’s (STEP) 2018 Exporter of the Year Award.

SASKATOON — Ceres Global Ag may not be the most well-known grain-handling company in Saskatchewan.

But its reputation is growing, thanks to a dedicated staff, an aggressive export program, and a new high-throughput terminal near Northgate, Sask., just a stone’s throw from the United States border.

In 2017-18, Ceres shipped almost 450,000 tonnes of grains and oilseeds through its Northgate facility, primarily to buyers in the U.S. and Mexico.

In 2018-19, the company hopes to boost its annual handlings to 500,000 tonnes or more, said general manager Jeremy Nielsen.

Those are impressive numbers for an elevator that loaded its first grain car in 2015 through a temporary loading system consisting of two 1,000 bushel hopper bins.

“In early 2015, before our terminal was built, our goal was to load a 110-car grain train in a week through our temporary transloader,” said facility manager Jeremy Johnston.

“Now, with the new elevator, we’ll load that same train in 15 hours.”

The Northgate Terminal sits on about 1,300 acres along the Canada – U.S. border, about 60 kilometres southeast of Estevan.

The Northgate Terminal, owned by Ceres Global Ag, is located just a few hundred metres north of the U.S. border. It buys grain and oilseeds from Canadian growers and ships products south of the border, to mills and U.S. export locations. The facility is serviced by BNSF Railway, an American carrier. | Brian Cross photo

It’s an ideal location for shipping Canadian grain to American mills and U.S. export facilities.

Most of the grain that’s shipped through Northgate is destined for the American Midwest.

But grain is also shipped to end users in Eastern Canada and Mexico, as well as export facilities in the Pacific Northwest and the Gulf of Mexico.

In addition to a modern grain elevator that offers 2.7 million bushels of storage capacity, the Northgate site also includes two circular rail loops, transloading facilities for propane, liquid petroleum products and industrial chemicals, and a 26,000 tonne bulk fertilizer storage facility.

The fertilizer shed is owned by Koch Canada and is managed by Ceres.

Fertilizer products arrive via rail from the U.S. and are shipped out by truck.

Trucking companies that deliver grain to Northgate often look for backhaul opportunities, so fertilizer has been a perfect complementary business, said Nielsen.

“Koch brings in the product by train, we unload the rail cars, put it in the bins and load it out by truck as Koch makes the sales,” he said.

“We’ve developed a very good relationship with them.”

Future plans at Northgate include the development of additional transload capacity to service the energy sector in southeastern Saskatchewan.

Ceres is also exploring other opportunities and is developing new relationships with shippers in other sectors, including lumber.

Of the 1,300 acres owned by Ceres, only 600 or so are developed so there’s plenty of room for expansion, said Nielsen.

The site was recently named a certified shipping site by BNSF Railway, one of 14 such sites across North America, he added.

“Basically, that means that it’s shovel ready for any industry that wants to come in, be that natural gas transloading, a canola crush plant or whatever an investor thinks might be a good fit.”

Nielsen, who also owns and operates a grain farm in the area, said the grain terminal’s location near the international border is ideal for local grain and oilseed producers.

Delivery opportunities can be hard to find on the Canadian side, especially during the dead of winter, he said.

Over the past three years, BNSF has provided outstanding rail service, consistently delivering 110-car grain trains on time, he said.

Nielsen says Northgate’s efficient loop track system helps to ensure timely rail service.

Because most of Northgate’s grain does not travel west through the Rockies, Northgate grain trains also avoid a major chokepoint that can play havoc with winter rail schedules.

Ceres is continuing to develop new markets for Canadian grain, thanks to an experienced sales staff based in Minneapolis, Nielsen said.

When the Northgate facility opened, it was assumed that canola would comprise the majority of the elevator’s business. While canola is important, annual handlings in spring wheat and durum have steadily grown.

The elevator’s durum handling in particular have been a pleasant surprise, Nielsen said.

“Surprisingly, about 50 percent or so of the grain that goes through here is durum, and we’re not even in the heart of durum growing country,” Nielsen said.

“I think a lot of that is due to the good relationship that our buying team in Minneapolis has with the millers in the United States that are using durum.”

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