Sask farmers still waiting to cash in on bumper crop

Much of last year's record-setting harvest still sits in the bin. Farmers remain unpaid for it because of a choked railway system that isn't moving grain to port soon enough.

Slow grain transport in a choked rail system to blame says farmers

Michel Lepage sifts through grain still sitting in the bin from last year's record-setting harvest. (CBC/Trevor Bothorel)

Much of last year's record-setting harvest still sits in the bin. And farmers remain unpaid for it. That's because of a choked railway system that isn't moving grain to port soon enough.

Michel Lepage's bumper crop of wheat has still not turned into cash in hand. (CBC/Trevor Bothorel)
"We're in the midst of an emerging crisis around grain movement," said Doug Faller, co-general manager of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan (APAS). 

"There's been debate about why it isn't moving but the reality is that there are producers who have contracted grain that should have been delivered three months ago," Faller added.

He said it's hurting the ability of farmers to pay their bills and loans.  Last week APAS issued a news release asking banks to be patient.  He is also trying to set up talks between farmers, grain handlers and railways to find solutions.

Cash not flowing

Off-farm income is helping Michel Lepage cope on his farm near St. Denis. But he sees others struggling.

"Any farmer that's in a situation where he needs that extra cash flow will be caught between a rock and a hard place right now," said Lepage.

Certainly the record harvest partly explains the rail bottleneck.  But Lepage also sees competition from the mining and oil sectors.

"The allocation on train runs, are they going to prioritize on cars that pay more money when it comes to hauling potash, let's say?," Lepage commented.

Wheat Board lost clout with railways?

Some, including Faller, also wonder if the end of the Canadian Wheat Board's monopoly is a factor.

"Clearly the Canadian Wheat Board played a very important role in coordinating the sourcing of grain, and the movement of that grain into the grain transportation system, and the filling of the ships at port.," Faller said.

"With no central entity in place to do that it becomes a more complex issue," Faller added.  "We will see I think in the years ahead how important that role might have been. Many argue it was critically important."

The strain may continue.  The Saskatchewan government is promoting increased farm production, and according to the Minister of Agriculture, Lyle Stewart,  the record level harvest could soon become the norm.

"We believe that there has to be some more investment put into the transportation and handling system in Western Canada to be able to handle a crop of this size in a timely fashion," Stewart said.

For farmers like Michel Lepage, timing is everything. The bumper crop has also pushed down prices dramatically, around 30 per cent for wheat .  He said he may now have to hold off selling his grain until he can get a better price.

Saskatchewan's Agriculture Minister Lyle Stewart knows the grain handling system is failing farmers.

He farms nears Pense and said he's got grain in the bin himself -- and that it's frustrating.

Stewart said there's plenty of blame to go around.

"Likely too much crop was contracted for fall delivery that we didn't have the capacity to deliver, so the grain companies might have to take some responsibility for that," he said in an interview.

Stewart's federal counterpart, Gerry Ritz, is meeting with grain handlers today.

"Well, we're all hoping that when the players get together that there'll be some consensus as to what needs to change," Stewart said.