There is some good news in the fact that we aren’t expecting a bumper crop like the one we had last year:
It shouldn’t be quite as big a struggle to get the grain to port this winter.
But this should come as little solace to rural Saskatchewan farmers who still must contend with a federal government that still isn’t tough enough on the railways.
Whatever hope we had last winter that the Conservative government in Ottawa and Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz would quite literally lay down the law and make the movement of grain the prior for the railways has simply not come to fruition.
Simply put, Ritz and his federal government could have and should have done more, although perhaps it’s not completely fair to blame all the problems on their inaction. Several factors did not work in farmers’ favor.
For starters, that 76-million-tonne crop that came off prairie farm fields was the largest in Western Canada and would have been problematic under the best of circumstances. The same can be said for the extremely cold winter that delayed shipping even more.
But even with this reality, much of the $7.2 billion to $8.3 billion in lost income faced by Western farmers — who need a bumper crop every now and then to make their operations viable _ could have been avoided with great restrictions on exactly what the railways should be allowed to get away with.
Yes, they are private companies, but they also run a monopoly transportation system heavily subsidized over the years by the fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers of Western Canadian farmers.
The new regulations to Bill C-30, the Fair Rail for Grain Farmers Act, unveiled earlier this month needed to keep that in mind. Certainly, Ritz go rhetoric in his Saskatoon announcement earlier this month by proclaiming he was creating “a rail supply chain that farmers and all shippers can depend on”. But farmers needed more than rhetoric.
Sure there were some good elements to the new regulations including:
a require that railway companies move a minimum grain volume between Aug. 3 to Nov. 29; more disclosure from CN and CP on the grain that they do move to better monitor their overall performances; increased clarity of the operational terms in a service level agreement that can be arbitrated by the Canadian Transportation Agency, and; improvement on inter-switching.
The regulations also put into law the federal order-in-council from last March that ordered the railways to increase shipment by one million tonnes or 11,000 cars a week.
But both the Saskatchewan Party government and the federal Liberal and NDP oppositions rightly note that volume needed to be higher to deal with the backlog and now this only preserves the status quo.
And even that status quo is rather short-lived as these regulations are set to expire in two years.
Simply put, this is producing a lost marketing opportunity for Saskatchewan farmers for 2013 crop year and little hope of getting ahead in the future.
Moreover, even if we have an average crop of 50 million tonnes or so in 2014 — a likely outcome — there still is that 17-million-tonne backlog carried over from the 2013 crop.
Again, that makes it very difficult for farmers to get ahead of the game.
And while the laws may now allow individual produces to sue for damages, that right doesn’t extend to their representative farm agencies that would be more effective.
As has been the case for some time, the railways will continue to move grain at the convenience of their business. That will continue to mean after more profitable contracts with the oil companies.
The federal government’s bill doesn’t go far enough.
Murray Mandryk has been covering provincial politics for over 22 years.