Manitoba’s grain port is having a stellar shipping season… and we’re not talking about Churchill.
Port of Thunder Bay CEO Tim Heney has taken to calling Thunder Bay “Manitoba’s port” because this year most of the grain it handled came from here.
“Seventy-four per cent of the seaway’s grain exports are originated now in Manitoba versus 19 per cent coming from Saskatchewan,” Heney told the Fields on Wheels online conference Dec. 11.
“Again that’s one of the reasons we changed our name to Manitoba’s port.”
The port’s name hasn’t officially changed, Heney said in an interview later. It was a tongue-in-cheek way to make a point.
Grain shipments from Saskatchewan once accounted for most of the grain going through Thunder Bay, partly because it produces so much more grain than Manitoba.
Thunder Bay is having a banner year handling 10 million tonnes of cargo — nine million of its grain mostly from Manitoba, Heney told the meeting.
“This is going to be the best year since 1997,” he said. “And we’re also seeing the second most ocean vessels through the port in history at around 160 vessels.”
A lot of Thunder Bay’s grain is loaded on lakers, long, narrow ships made to fit through the locks of the St. Lawrence Seaway. The grain is unloaded in transfer elevators downriver where ocean-going ‘salties’ are loaded.
Heney said the end of the Canadian Wheat Board in 2012 has made Thunder Bay more attractive to grain exporters.
“Many of the costs were eliminated from the system, including the elimination of the grain commission inspection of lakers,” he said.
“In the port the saying was nothing changed in 100 years and everything changed in two years… and the changes continue today.”
Up until 1980 or so Thunder Bay, Canada’s first grain port, was the world’s largest. While it still has 1.35 million tonnes of grain storage capacity, and theoretically 19.5 million tonnes of throughput capacity, the Port of Vancouver has long been Canada’s top grain-exporting port.
The shift began in the early 1980s as grain exports to the Soviet Union and western Europe waned and increased to China and other parts of Asia more cheaply served from Vancouver and Prince Rupert.
Nevertheless, Heney is optimistic Thunder Bay’s grain business will continue to rebound.
It boasts some advantages, including faster car cycles and vessels don’t have to wait as long as in Vancouver to load and the harbour fees are lower.
“Grain consumption is based on urbanization,” he said in an interview. “China had that huge urbanization… but that’s coming to an end and the goals are to become more self-sufficient… so the biggest grain consumption going forward is the Middle East and north Africa and south Africa as well. In the case of the Middle East that’s where global warming really gets you — no more water for irrigation. Those are the two growth areas going forward. Like I said, you’ve got to be very patient in the seaway business, but it’s nice to see the long-term trend is on our side.”
Recently Thunder Bay received its first shipment of 20,900 tonnes of phosphate fertilizer from Morocco, Heney said. It was already expensive to move it through the United States and more so after it slapped on a $75-a-tonne tariff, he said.
“So people started looking for another way,” Heney said.
“I think there will be more. They didn’t take the conveyors away.”
Phosphate as a back haul might entice Manitoba farmers to haul their grain 450 miles to a Thunder Bay terminal, bypassing country elevators, Heney said.
Winnipeg is 450 miles from Thunder Bay, which is about a 10-hour trip for a truck, he added.