‘Shipping season has been a disaster’

OTTAWA — The House of Commons agriculture committee was scheduled to hold an emergency meeting March 7 to discuss the grain transportation backlog, even though Parliament is not sitting this week.

Four committee members representing both the Conservative and NDP opposition forced the meeting after delivering a request to the committee clerk March 1.

That came minutes after farm leaders from across Canada held a news conference on Parliament Hill to demand action.

“This year’s shipping season has been a disaster,” said Todd Lewis, president of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan. “We can’t afford another one.”

APAS, along with Keystone Agricultural Producers, Grain Growers of Canada, Alberta Federation of Agriculture and the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, stood together in their demand that Bill C-49 be passed by the Senate quickly, with some amendments, and that the government use other tools it has to get grain moving.

That could include an order in council similar to the one passed by the Conservative government in 2014, which offered extended interswitching and mandated railway volumes.

“It’s not our job to solve the problem,” said CFA President Ron Bonnett. “It’s the job of the Senate and the minister to make sure that the tools are in place so we ensure that we don’t have a repeat of this situation.”

Canadian National Railway is taking most of the heat from producers this year; in 2013-14, Canadian Pacific Railway performance triggered the backlog.

CN vice-president Janet Drysdale told the CFA annual meeting Feb. 28 that even if C-49 had been passed it wouldn’t have solved the current issue.

She apologized to producers for the railway’s performance, saying volumes are much stronger than the railway expected. The company has leased extra locomotives and is hiring staff.

She said CN has told the oil industry it can’t haul spot business right now, and it placed an embargo on shipments of fracking sand for drilling.

But Lewis said that highlights why the grain problem needs to be solved. The entire Canadian economy is being affected, he said, and industries shouldn’t be played off against each other.

“You had every signal in 2017 that your business would increase,” Lewis told Drysdale. “Do the job.”

Dan Mazier, president of Keystone Agricultural Producers, said slowing the whole system down isn’t the answer.

He saw this situation coming last fall when rail car service in October was at just 50 percent of cars requested. Through February, he said supply ranged between six and 19 percent of requests.

Elevators are full, canola crush plants are full and fertilizer isn’t coming in, he said.

Bonnett noted that the government has set ambitious trade targets but can’t expect farmers to meet them if grain isn’t moving.

“Parliament is going to take a two-week break. We need a plan coming back,” he said.

The Senate is working its way through the huge Bill C-49, which includes far more than just grain transportation, but it might not pass until both it and the House of Commons rise for the summer break.

“We can’t afford to let this bill sit until the end of June and then start to make plans for next year,” Lewis said.

Cash flow issues are affecting individual farmers, he said. Loan extensions from lenders and advance payment programs are available but they will simply add more costs on to already stressed farmers, he said.

Mazier said Transport Minister Marc Garneau and Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay need to “step up.”

Conservative agriculture critic John Barlow said timing is critical as farmers prepare for spring seeding.

“Impending road bans will make delivery of grain almost impossible,” he said.

The Ag Transportation Coalition reported March 2 that in week 30, CN and CP supplied just 32 percent of cars ordered for the poorest performance so far this crop year.

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