Tipping point nears as rail blockades continue

Rail blockades are reaching a tipping point for farmers, according to the Canadian Federation of Agriculture.

Mary Robinson, president of CFA, told her membership near the end of February that farmers are being “severely and harshly impacted by the random blockades.”

“We have nothing to do with this dispute. The widespread collateral damage of these protests is grinding our entire industry to a halt and is taking a massive toll on farmers across the country,” she said. “Canadian agriculture is quickly reaching a tipping points where the impacts of these blockages will move beyond simply being financially devastating for farmers.”

Blockades started in early February, with others popping up occasionally around the country. Prompted by disputes among First Nations’ groups over who is responsible for land development in a territory of British Columbia, the blockades notably closed Canadian National Railway’s main line between Prince George and Prince Rupert creating an immediate impact on grain shipping to tidewater.

Now removed, CN vice-president Sean Finn is hoping the railway can make up for the lost time.

“In Western Canada, we’re catching up, we’re not there yet, we’re going to be another two or three weeks to try to recover from both the blockade with the Rupert but also all those that pop up (randomly),” he said.

“We had a strike in November, we said it would take us a month to catch up, it took us two weeks. Now we’re saying two to three weeks, I hope it will be 10 days to two weeks.”

Estimates suggest propane will run out in some areas of the country by the end of the first week of March unless there is significant change.

“We are risking an animal welfare problem in this country as farmers (need) propane to keep their animals warm and comfortable, and deal with the lack of availability of food to feed them,” said Robinson.

Keystone Agriculture Producers president Bill Campbell echoed many of Robinson’s sentiments, noting 2019 has been a year of disruptions.

“We are innocent bystanders in the consequences of this,” he said.

Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan president Todd Lewis said it was difficult to know when the tipping point would be for farmers in the province, but suggested blockages will cost the industry billions of dollars given the critical time of year March is for grain contracts.

“It’s really important that we’re able to move things efficiently and get… as much grain off the farm as possible before spring break up,” he said. “That’s really going to be what’s going to really affect the carry out going into next fall, and that’s why we really have to have a real good shipping month here coming up (in March).”

He noted production loans are coming due in March and farmers need cash to prepare inputs for the upcoming season.

“The banks are more open to discussion, but at the same time, producers have to be too. Nobody likes a surprise,” he said. “We have seen willingness amongst lenders to work with producers and we hope that continues.”

Producers and lenders can recall previous experiences on how best to move forward given the challenging circumstances — as many reference 2013-14 as a comparable to the struggles being faced now. That year, the shipping backlog was estimated to cost prairie grain producers up to $6.7 billion.

Long-term damage may be more difficult to quantify.

“If countries cannot rely on Canada and honour their agreements, they will soon seek out other, more consistent trading partners,” said Robinson. “These blockades are having consequences that will reverberate for years to come. If they continue, the damage to Canada’s reputation and the food industry will be severe.”

Federal Minister of Agriculture Marie-Claude Bibeau continues to echo her Liberal colleagues in suggesting the federal government is doing what it can to end the blockades.

“We are always open for conversations, discussions, but we have been clear that the blockades must go away and we need the trains rolling for the benefit of all Canadians,” she said.

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