Hamilton's port expanding beyond steel into grain shipments

The Hamilton Port Authority has become a hub for exporting Ontario's grains.
Business has increased by 35 per cent at Hamilton's port since 2008. This ship is being loaded at Richardson International's port. (Mark Chambers/CBC)

On a grey December day, a packed freight ship sails out of Hamilton's port on a delivery to Italy. Not an uncommon sight, but the contents of the large containers aren't what's considered traditional Hamilton cargo.

This ship sailing out of Richardson International's port isn't loaded with locally produced steel — it's carrying tonnes and tonnes of grains.

"We see that tradition as Steel City, but there are some new kids on the block." said Jay Fretz, Hamilton terminal director for grain company Parrish and Heimbecker. "It's the grain business here."

The Canadian exporting giant signed a long-term agreement with the port about two years ago and they have been serving markets abroad from Hamilton since, Fretz said.

The port is now home to 100 clients. Three are agricultural based, said Bruce Wood, CEO of the Hamilton Port Authority, and they're looking for more.

"We created a long term strategic plan [in 2008] and part of it was to diversify away from the steel plants," Wood said.

Business at the port has grown by 35 per cent since it began diversifying to export agricultural commodities, according to statistics from Hamilton's Economic Development office. The industry now contributes $1.3 billion to the city's economy.

These clients are happy with their new digs.

"It's a high capacity, high efficiency facility that's geared to receive truckloads of grain quickly and load the vessels efficiently and have rapid turnaround," said Fretz, or the two large production domes that now adorn the port's skyline.

About seven to eight million acres worth of soybeans, wheat and corn produced in Ontario, he said, so that high turnaround is needed. It also keeps Parrish and Heimbacker's customers content.

"Ontario is a net exporter of soybeans — we can't consume all the soybeans we produce," Fretz said. "Producers are getting excellent at producing a soy bean that is wanted in export markets, so we're happy to be part of that."

Growth plans

While the agricultural industry in Ontario booming, its presence on the port is still new, and needs a boost.

"It is still in its infancy," Wood said. "It's still growing but its not growing as fast as tenants that have been around for years and years."

Despite some stunted expansion, Wood is confident the grain business is the way Hamilton's port should go and will be happy to announce new clients for 2013 soon.

"Crops may be down one year and may booming the next year, but people still need to eat. If we had the opportunity to put a flourmill down here, we would do it," he said. "But that's not our business, so we put infrastructure in the ground and we work with our customers." 

with files from Radio-Canada's Mark Chambers