When it comes to exporting western Canadian grain the Port of Vancouver stands out, but the Port of Prince Rupert, almost 1,500 km to the north, has lots to offer too.
That’s the message Prince Rupert officials delivered at a reception with grain trade and Manitoba government representatives in Winnipeg Sept. 26.
“There’s still latent capacity (at Prince Rupert),” Ken Veldman, Prince Rupert’s director of public affairs said in an interview after the reception.
Prince Rupert has the capacity to export 6.5 million tonnes of bulk grain annually, says data from the Western Grain Elevator Association (WGEA), and typically exports between five million and six million, Veldman said.
Bulk wheat and barley exports from Prince Rupert totalled 5.75 million tonnes in 2017.
Vancouver, Thunder Bay and direct rail to the export terminals in the lower St. Lawrence can do 35 million, 13.9 million, and 8.6 million tonnes a year, respectively.
Vancouver has added eight million tonnes, or 30 per cent more capacity since 2013-14, says WGEA executive director Wade Sobkowich.
Meanwhile, G3 is building a new state-of-the-art grain terminal in Vancouver which is expected to add an extra six million to eight million more tonnes of export capacity.
The terminal will start receiving grain next year and begin exporting in 2020, G3 officials have said.
“It’s encouraging to see so much investment in the grain industry,” Sobkowich said in an interview Oct. 31. “It shows how much confidence there is in the industry. Those investments will be around for decades.”
Prince Rupert isn’t just bullish on grain, but also processed agricultural products, including chilled and frozen meat, which can be exported through its container facilities.
“We now have a very highly developed reefer capacity at Prince Rupert, which is simply looking for reefers to come in and make use of,” Bud Smith, chair of the Port of Prince Rupert told the reception.
Exporting more value-added products is part of Manitoba Agriculture Minister Ralph Eichler’s mandate, he told the reception.
“Manitoba is open for business related to that,” he said. “With your help hopefully we can make the economy win not only for Manitobans but all of Canada.”
Container cargo topped Prince Rupert’s 2017 exports at almost 9.2 million tonnes.
According to WGEA figures, Prince Rupert has the capacity to stuff almost 1.3 million tonnes of crops into containers. And that capacity is growing, thanks to the expansion of Ray-Mont Logistics, the Port of Prince Rupert’s president and CEO Shaun Stevenson, told the reception.
“We’re doing everything from traditional cereals to the soybeans and pulses and specialty crops that are all moving through containers as well,” Veldman said. “As noted, those supply chains are really evolving. So everything is coming from products that are loaded, sourced and shipped through as a containerized product through the port, to products that are being railed in bulk and are being stuffed into containers at the port and then loaded directly on from there. That’s the kind of innovation disruption that that intermodal really provides… and no more than in any industry than agriculture right now.”
Prince Rupert’s growth in container capacity is good for Canada, Barry Prentice, a professor of supply chain management at the University of Manitoba, said. For one thing, it’s a backup should problems such as an earthquake, interfere with container shipments from Vancouver.
“Of course I’ve had a longtime interest in containerization of grain,” he said in an interview following the reception. “I think that will move forward and I’m glad to see the transloaders are picking up on it. I think we’re going to see more containerized grain in time, just because it makes sense from a just-in-time perspective, as well as the total cost, especially if it’s a small receiver at the other end. They don’t need too big inventory at any given time.”
With so much of Western Canada’s grain going to Asia, it naturally wants to move through Vancouver, which is Canada’s biggest port, including for grain. But it’s also congested, not only with ships, but with people and traffic, which often complicates train movement.
Prince Rupert, which is closer sailing to many Asia ports, doesn’t have those same urban constraints. Moreover, the mountains trains go through to get there are less steep.
“So there are less weather-related disruptions,” Veldman said.
“That reliability and velocity, that has been the foundation of all of our businesses whether they be intermodal, bulk or otherwise.”
Prince Rupert is also a very deep port, which is an advantage in two ways, Veldman said. Deep water is safer for large ships and dredging isn’t required.
“We have a very short approach from open ocean into the harbour regardless of terminal,” he said. “And within that very short approach — very deep, very wide, very sheltered, but also relatively few other vessels, whether that be other deep-sea vessels, commercial fishing vessels, recreational vessels. You compare that to major ports around the world it’s like driving a highway. If there are 10 cars versus 100 cars the one with 10 cars is much safer to travel.”
Prince Rupert’s board meets six times a year, but one of those meetings is held in a city served by the port. This year was Winnipeg’s turn, Veldman said, adding Prince Rupert and western Canadian agriculture have a long shared history.
“We are extremely bullish on the agriculture industry going forward,” he said. “And we are very focused on trying to find ways to continue to innovate supply chains, disrupt supply chains, but doing so with the sole focus of continuing to add value. If we add value to that industry we are going to be adding value to farms.”