Any farmer will tell you there are good years and there are bad years.
The surprise came a few months ago when 2013 -- a record-breaking bumper crop year -- became a bad one for farmers when the rail system proved inadequate to transport their product to port in a timely manner.
“It’s absolutely terrible -- a modern country like ours to believe we’ve got people dying to get our grain, and we can’t get it to them,” Prince Albert Farm World sales representative Brent Kaar said.
“Lots of ships are sitting (on the coast) waiting to load grain, countries wanting our grain, and the railroads can’t get them our grain, so that’s extremely frustrating to them.”
Despite the delays, Kaar noted that most of the farmers he sells to have been on their land for a long time and are well established enough that they’ll be able to ride it out.
“There are probably some younger ones who have invested an awful pile of money and they can’t ride it out, but I haven’t personally talked to any of those,” he concluded.
“Ride it out” doesn’t mean passing through it without any ill effect.
Many farmers have resorted to storing their product in grain bags -- a temporary means of storage they’re stretching longer than expected or advised.
“Birds can poke holes into them or deer can paw them or whatever else, and once you start getting moisture in them they can spoil,” Kaar said.
“Some of them have absolutely no other place to put them … Their regular grain storage is filled right to the brim, and they just have nowhere to store them.”
Cash flow is another problem, he said, noting that although most farmers have prices locked in through contracts they’re of little use until they can follow through and transport their product.
“That creates a huge problem, and there are definitely some people who aren’t able to pay their bills because they aren’t able to move the grain,” Kaar said.
Prince Albert and District Chamber of Commerce CEO Merle Lacert said that from a local perspective, he hasn’t heard very much about the recent transportation backlog – “just what we glean from the news.”
However, the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce, which has a membership comprised of larger industry than local Chambers, plans on tackling the issue.
“A lot of the larger businesses that export things -- they’ve expressed concerns,” Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce director of government relations Curtis Hemming said.
“Any infrastructure for getting product out of here -- whether it’s rail or whether it’s truck -- it’s all, especially doing boom times, the capacity is tested.”
Last year yielded a record crop of 38.4 million tonnes, which surpassed the 36.6-million tonne long-term goal the province hoped to reach by 2020.
“It’s awesome that they want to keep crop production high, but there is additional strain put over the next five or six years,” Hemming concluded.
It’s absolutely terrible -- a modern country like ours to believe we’ve got people dying to get our grain, and we can’t get it to them. Brent Kaar
All industries that export their products outside of the province in bulk, be it agricultural or mining, have been affected by the systematic strain of last year, he said.
The Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce is currently looking to its membership to fund a study that will help guide the provincial and federal governments as to where future investment should go when it comes to helping rail and highways transportation.
Although the policy think tank has yet to start work, Hemming said that he anticipates seeing a combination of infrastructure and policy deficits as contributors to this year’s shipping backlog.
“Probably a bit more on the infrastructure needs side, because I would assume that any of these companies, since it is their business to do rail traffic, I think that they would be fairly proficient at it,” he said.
Omnitrax, which owns and operates the Carlton Trail Railway between Prince Albert and Saskatoon, was not available for comment on Wednesday.
CN Rail responded to a media inquiry with an email response, wherein communications and public affairs director Mark Hallman noted that the company is working to “lift its performance as soon as extreme cold temperatures abate, to return to a more normal winter spotting performance of 4,000-plus cars per week.”
Last week, 3,530 empty grain hopper cars were at elevators throughout the company for loading and another 500 are expected to come on-stream soon.
By April, they expect the Port of Thunder Bay to re-open, bringing their total to 5,500 cars per week.
At latest update in Saskatchewan, the province’s Economy Minister Bill Boyd said that the government hopes to see the feds move on improving the rail system “aggressively.”
He wants to see the federal government, which has jurisdiction over rail systems across the country, head negotiations between grain companies and the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific railway companies.
"We think that's necessary to provide contractual obligations with financial penalties attached them to get performance,” Boyd told the Daily Herald earlier this week, noting that with no financial penalties attached to a failure to transport product in a timely manner there is “no accountability” in the current system.
In the meantime, Kaar said that he’s heard that most Prince Albert area farmers plan on carrying on as usual and hope for the best.
“They’re going to seed as they normally do and hope that their contracts get called and they can haul their grain,” he said.
A small minority of farmers plan on letting their land to go spring fallow -- a practice that modern farming technology has mostly done away with -- and selling their 2013 product when they can, missing out on a year’s crop.