Grading grain compromise in wake of COVID—19

Rights clash with reality of grain grading in the age of social distancing

Physical distancing may prevent farmers from watching their grain being graded at the elevator.

But they can still ask the Canadian Grain Commission (CGC) to determine the grade if they dispute the buyer’s grade, says CGC spokesman Remi Gosselin.

Under the Canada Grain Act, which the CGC enforces, farmers have a right to see their grain graded, but because of COVID-19 grain companies are restricting public access.

“We’re saying because of the circumstance grain companies have to balance their requirements under the law, but also protect employees and grain producers,” Gosselin said in an interview March 26. “We’re calling on people’s judgment and fair play here. We expect grain companies and producers to be able to come to a reasonable agreement that balances producers’ rights under the act, but also protects employees and grain producers. And if they can’t come to a reasonable agreement then there is a mechanism in place, which is grain arbitration (also known as subject to inspector’s grade and dockage).

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Why it matters: Farmers have a right to see their grain graded at the elevator, but in most cases, due to physical distancing to slow COVID-19, that’s on hold.

The CGC has had only one complaint about farmers not being present during grading, Gosselin said.

Keystone Agricultural Producers (KAP) president Bill Campbell has heard rumblings, but agrees COVID-19 safeguards are needed.

“There’s going to have to be more communications with the grain buyers and there’s going to have to be a level of trust,” he said in an interview March 24. “I would suggest the grain companies have been fair, but I would have to say the grain producers have never really challenged them on grain disputes widely.”

That’s often because farmers and grain buyers have a ‘give-and-take’ relationship, Campbell said.

“If you do not have the level of trust your option is to go to a different elevator,” he said.

But hauling grain to a different elevator could mean a much bigger trucking bill if it’s farther away, he added.

“If farmers feel they aren’t being treated fairly they should contact our (CGC) licensing and compliance unit,” Gosselin said.

If farmers want a CGC grade they need to make that known at the time of delivery, Gosselin said.

Western Canada’s main grain companies, represented by the Western Grain Elevator Association (WGEA), recognize farmers’ right to a CGC grade, said WGEA executive director Wade Sobkowich in an interview March 26.

“These are unusual circumstances and temporary and hopefully we can go back to the normal way we used to do business,” he said.

If grain shipping becomes a health risk it could get shut down, he added.

“We need to do everything we can in order to keep these (physical) distances (between elevator staff and farmers) so we’re not seen as part of the problem here.”

Meanwhile, grain continues to move well, Sobkowich said.

“Everyone is still accepting grain,” he said. “Everyone is still shipping grain and everyone is still on the road to recovery from the (rail) blockades (which delayed grain shipping), but we’re moving in the right direction.”

That won’t change, despite COVID-19, so long as farmers continue to deliver grain and grain chain workers, from elevator staff, to rail crews and terminal elevator workers, are able to remain on the job.

“Every company is different and every situation is different,” Sobkowich said. “Everyone is trying to work with their staff and those who need to be home for various reasons are able to be home.

“So far we haven’t seen an increase in absenteeism to the point where we can’t keep grain moving.”

The CGC is still inspecting grain at export terminals but because of physical distancing in some cases samples are being graded at CGC offices instead of the terminal, Gosselin said.

Incremental samples are being taken as grain is being loaded on ships, but to streamline grading the results aren’t being given to the companies in real time, he said. However, incremental samples are being retained in case grading disputes arise later.

The CGC is also issuing Certificate Finals, which guarantees the grade loaded on the ship, based on composite samples.

Not having the incremental data puts grain companies at a higher risk of not meeting the grade required by the customer, Sobkowich said. To be on the safe side companies may add higher-quality grain to a shipment — an extra cost to the grain company.

“But these are unusual circumstances so we are looking at it, and our conversations with the grain commission are continuing,” Sobkowich said.

COVID-19 hasn’t affected CN Rail and the company is taking measures so it doesn’t, Sean Finn, CN’s executive vice-president of corporate services and chief legal officer, said in an interview March 26.

“Everybody in the supply chain has been working very well together and we don’t see any weakness when it comes to the supply chain,” he said. “That’s important.”

In week 32 (March 8-14) and 33 (March 15-21) CN spotted 6,300 and almost 7,000 cars, respectively.

This time of year CN normally aims to spot 4,150 cars, Finn said.

“When we do 7,000 cars in a week that’s everybody in the supply chain really performing well,” he said. “There might have been the odd week we hit 7,100 in the springtime, but for this time of year in March these are very high numbers.”

Still, because CN workers went on strike in November, followed by protest blockades in the new year, year-to-date grain movement for CN is behind last year.

CN is committed to keeping its employees safe and moving grain, Finn said.

“We’ll get through this together. We’ll move all the product when it comes to grain as quickly and efficiently as we can.”

About the author

Reporter

Allan Dawson

Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.

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