The federal government needs an immediate action plan to restore adequate grain transportation and ensure Prairie producers have the funds to plant the 2018 crop, farm leaders said March 1.
Alarmed by Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay’s lack of awareness about the gravity of the grain transportation delays when he spoke to the annual meeting of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture Feb. 28, they made a public appeal for help March 1.
In addition to CFA president Ron Bonnett and Keystone Agriculture Producers president Dan Mazier and leaders of other Prairie groups, Jeff Nielsen, president of Grain Growers of Canada, joined in a call for action at a news conference on Parliament Hill.
Their call for urgent action was reinforced by Conservative ag critics Luc Berthold and John Barlow, with the support of NDP spokesman Alistair MacGregor. They will ask the Commons agriculture committee “to hold an emergency committee meeting to recognize and address the worst grain backlog in years.”
In a statement, Berthold and Barlow said, “Time is of the essence.” The government needs to “take immediate action to resolve the backlog in grain delivery and provide the necessary tools to hold railways accountable for inadequate service levels.”
Answering questions in the Commons March 1, MacAulay said he and Transport Minister Marc Garneau “have contacted CN to indicate how serious it is, and that it needs to move grain faster. I have spoken to grain farmers, and indicated to them that we are fully aware of the seriousness of the situation.”
Bonnett said the action plan has to do more than deal with the transportation crisis.
“It has to address the financial and marketing issues facing farmers,” he said.
He was especially concerned about young farmers who are carrying high debt loads.
Mazier and other leaders said that planting will be starting in 60 days and farmers need money to pay for seed, fuel, fertilizer and other inputs. As they haven’t been able to market much of the grain harvested last year, they will need financial assistance.
Norm Hall, head of the Association of Saskatchewan Agriculture Producers, didn’t hold much hope of AgriStability helping western grain farmers.
“While it’s supposed to be a disaster program, it’s a disaster of a program,” he said.
Nielsen said the situation also sends a big signal to foreign buyers about Canada’s reliability as a grain supplier.
The farm leaders said the priority has to be preventing another grain crisis in Western Canada like the winter of 2013-14. The then Harper government resorted to an order-in-council to impose minimum grain haulage numbers and stiff fines on the railways to make sure they were respected.
However, the Trudeau government didn’t renew that special cabinet order because measures in its transport modernization bill would achieve stronger shipper protection. However, that bill, often referred to as C-49, is currently under study by the Senate transport committee, which has concerns about other sections of the sweeping legislation.
Parliament began a two-week break March 2. Even if it passes the bill before the end of the month, it will still take time for approval of the regulations that will give its provisions teeth.
The Ag Transport Coalition said hopper car order fulfilments from CN and CP dipped to about 38 per cent during the week of Feb. 12. CN managed to deliver only 17 per cent of the rail cars that grain shippers ordered, while CP managed 66 per cent.
Janet Drysdale, CN vice-president of corporate development and sustainability, spent more than an hour trying to explain and then answering questions from CFA delegates about the railway’s position.
She began with an apology and said the situation was a shock after last year’s record-setting delivery performance.
In addition to the cold and heavy snow in British Columbia, she said the grain companies have been focused on moving as much grain as possible through their terminals in Vancouver and shipments through Prince Rupert are down as a result.
“Every effort is being made to get us back on track,” she said. “The fluidity is improving.”
She said growth in freight traffic in the Edmonton-Winnipeg-Chicago corridor this year has been a surprise. The railway plans to double track more of its Prairie main line this year.