After the long and bitter fight over ending the Canadian Wheat Board’s monopoly as a single-desk seller, a gleeful Saskatchewan Party MLA was waxing on this spring about how a big impediment to modern-day farming had been eliminated.
It was a time for optimism. We were in the process of growing a record crop in Saskatchewan and prices were still rather high.
But when asked why we should necessarily assume agriculture in rural Saskatchewan would now be a panacea given all the other problems out there — including the age-old frustration with the railways — the farmer/politician wryly smiled:
“I guess we won’t hear (CWB opponents) admit that things are worse,” he said.
To a point, the politician has been right. We have heard proportionally little about the current agriculture frustrations in the post-monopoly-world. Included in those frustrations are falling prices from grain companies … although that issue surely has something to do with the heavy crop and glut on the market.
But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t frustrations out there. In fact, they are now starting to be voiced.
One such voice is Manitoba’s largest farm group, the Keystone Agriculture Producers. Its president Doug Chorney penned a rather interesting article about how the excitement of last fall’s record yields has been replaced by an old and worsening problem of the railways failing to move grain in a timely way.
“What’s new now is that last fall’s optimism has turned into concern because these crops are still on the farm,” Chorney wrote. “Abysmal service once again by Canada’s two major railways has limited crop movement so drastically that grain companies, which buy and market the crops, are buying very limited amounts — or are not buying at all.”
Chorney’s article noted that inland terminals and elevators are full as they wait for railcars that don’t come — largely because the 33-per-cent increase in yield was met with a mere two-per-cent increase in car allotment as of November, according to the Western Grain Elevator Association.
Moreover, only 27 per cent of the cars are arriving at the terminals and elevators on time and the railways are “leaving the cars at the elevators to be loaded for longer-than-average time periods — sometimes as much as 11 days,” Chorney noted.
He added that port terminals were without rail service for 28 days during a three-and-a-half month period last fall. When there is no grain to ship or shipments are late, grain companies are fined, and Canada loses both contracts and its reputation as a reputable shipper, he said.
Admittedly, Chorney rightly blames the railways for this problem and asked for short-term intervention by Transport Minister Lisa Raitt.
But he also noted the longer-term need for a “government-directed reassessment of how railways do business.”
After all, prairie crop production getting larger, Chorney said. He also noted that CN and CP — moved 8.7 million tonnes of crop in mid-November 1993, but were only capable of moving 7.5 million tonnes in the same week this past November.
Chorney does not mention the end of CWB board monopoly. He also correctly notes that what’s going on with the railways is a problem long in the making.
That said, one of the old CWB’s roles was as a farmers’ advocate for getting the cars in a timely fashion. There is obviously one less advocate for this critical element of today’s agriculture business.
And in this brave new world of marketing freedom farmers are finding themselves in heavy competition with other industries like oil and potash that use the railways to move their product.
The end of CWB’s monopoly may have solved marketing problems for some farmers. But that certainly doesn’t mean it’s solved all the problems in agriculture.
In fact, some of those problems may be getting worse.
Murray Mandryk has been covering provincial politics for over 22 years.