Friday August 29, 2014

Poor grain movements hurt farm sector


There’s really not much good to be found in today’s grain transportation crisis — a body blow to an optimistic farming community and to rural Saskatchewan as a whole.

A bumper crop unlike anything some lifelong farmers have ever experienced has suddenly met the grim reality that it’s not worth anything until it’s moved to port.

Moreover, what farmers can get for this bumper crop now is far less than anticipated — some estimate $2 a bushel less for wheat — simply because we have a glut of grain that’s not moving.

Ironically, the ultimate source of this grain transportation problem is the very thing that’s turned our province around in the past decade — wealth of resources like oil and, to a certain extent, potash.

CN and CP — now both private entities accountable only to their investor shareholders — can blame the cold weather all they want. The reality is the railways have done everything possible to maximize shareholder profits, causing a two-fold problem for farmers.

Cutting their fleets of locomotives and cars combined with making the movement of oil their priority — again, all in the name of maximum shareholder profit — is the cause of today’s grain transportation problem.

And why that problem isn’t being fixed has to do with a federal government unwilling to address this issue.

Maybe it all can’t be blamed on the federal Conservative government’s push end of the Canadian Wheat Board’s clout as the monopoly player. But it is also clear that this political move aimed at appeasing farmers hamstrung by the lack of marketing choice has eliminated whatever effective role the CWB played in rail car distribution.

And, again, maybe Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz aren’t the first Ottawa politicians to be captivated by the rail companies. There is a reason why there are more than 200 registered lobbyists in the nation’s capital working for the rail companies. They are there because what they do has always produced results that favour the railways over the grain companies.

But there can be no doubt that Ottawa’s reluctance to take action against the railways is why the railways continue to act exclusively in the interests of shareholder profits by choosing to move oil over grain.

Ritz can bluster all he wants. Until he comes to terms with the fact it is his job to intervene on behalf of farmers who need that grain moved, he is of no more help to rural Saskatchewan than the Liberals were.

But while all this may seem disheartening and rather hopeless, there may a slight silver lining to all of this. It has helped Saskatchewan rediscover who it really is — an agriculture province whose first and foremost interest always should always be farming.

That Ritz, Harper et. al. have taken a hands-off approach to the railways that have far more interest in moving oil says much about how they are failing to deal with Saskatchewan’s biggest issue.

They are quickly becoming out-of-touch with a province that has rediscovered that it is does not solely exist to make rich oil companies and railways even richer. Saskatchewan is about farming and it’s time for the Ritz and Conservatives to stand up for what truly matters most to this province.

Contrast the feds with what we’ve seen from Premier Brad Wall’s Saskatchewan Party government — also tied to the oil economy — that has at least tried to make resolving the grain glut its priority.

Consider last week’s emergency debate in the legislature where all MLAs from Wall to Agriculture Minister Lyle Stewart to ordinary backbenchers like Scott Moe, Greg Brkich and Kathy Sproule spoke passionately and intelligently on this important agriculture issue.

No, it didn’t get the grain moving. But it was good see that some Saskatchewan politicians do remember who we really are in Saskatchewan.

We are agriculture.

Murray Mandryk has been covering provincial politics for over 22 years.



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