© Times-Herald photo by Lisa Goudy
Rail tracks are seen on South Hill on March 3, 2014, the same day the provincial government passed a motion to encourage Ottawa to introduce emergency law in the coming weeks to resolve the grain backlog.
Even if the grain transportation crisis were resolved tomorrow, it would still take many months to export the record product backlog in Saskatchewan.
“The system’s behind enough now that I think it’s probably going to take until at least harvest to get this cleared up no matter what we do now,” said Saskatchewan Agriculture Minister Lyle Stewart. “But at least we won’t have to look at this happening again next year or the year after or the year after that if we come up with a proper solution this time … This is a problem that’s ongoing for decades.”
The Saskatchewan Legislative Assembly passed Premier Brad Wall’s motion to encourage Ottawa to introduce emergency law in the coming weeks to fix the backlog on Monday. It was the first day of the spring session.
The emergency law would have “requirements for levels of service and reciprocal penalties between the grain companies and railways for failure to provide that performance,” said Stewart.
“Elevators are all full on the Prairies and the terminals have been mostly empty on the West Coast. As many as 55 ships are ready to load,” he said. “They’ve been inflexible about adding locomotives and crews and cars to the fleet, although they have them.
“They’re just not willing to use them, it seems. They’re more concerned, I’m afraid, about their bottom line than they are about providing service.”
He began talking with railways in May or June of last year.
“There hadn’t been a problem yet, but I was concerned that there might be a shortfall in capacity and sure enough, there has been,” said Stewart. “So we’ve been engaged ever since then and certainly more intensely since harvest.”
Passing the motion encouraging the federal government to introduce emergency law wasn’t the ideal course of action, he said.
“We hoped that railways and grain companies could co-operate and voluntarily enter into those agreements, but it doesn’t seem that’s going to be the case. We spent a considerable amount of time trying to make that happen,” said Stewart.
“But it looks like it’s going to take new federal legislation to force them into it. That’s never anybody’s first option, but in light of their intransigence in the matter, we’re left with no choice and it appears that the federal government is interested in going that direction.”
The 2013 harvest marked a provincial record for the third year in a row for agriculture exports. Total sales were $11.7 billion in 2013, which is a five per cent increase from 2012.
“It’s great for the province,” said Stewart. “That represents 23 per cent of all Canada’s agricultural exports.”
The top three exported commodities included $2.1 billion in non-durum wheat sales, $2.1 billion in canola seed sales and $1.5 billion in canola oil sales. Exports to India increased 54 per cent or $243 million, exports to the United States increased 13.5 per cent or $424 million and exports to China increased 5.5 per cent or $104 million. The top three destinations were the United States, China and Japan.
“Our customers like what they’re getting from us and they’re willing to do more,” said Stewart, “but clearly we have to solve the problems in our transportation sector before we’re going to be able to continue to grow at this rate.”
Follow Lisa Goudy on Twitter @lisagoudy.