Wheat board could have helped move grain, NDP MP Pat Martin says

A major grain backlog would have been easier to manage if the Canadian Wheat Board was still able to co-ordinate grain transportation for Prairie wheat, New Democrat MP Pat Martin says.

Grain left sitting on Prairies during bumper crop year

A colder than usual winter means trains can't haul as many cars, making it harder to transport grain from Prairie farms following a bumper crop last fall. (Troy Fleece/Canadian Press)

A major grain backlog would have been easier to manage if the Canadian Wheat Board was still able to co-ordinate grain transportation for Prairie wheat, New Democrat MP Pat Martin said Wednesday.

"The wheat board not only got farmers the best prices, but they organized the orderly shipment of grain every year," Martin said outside the NDP's weekly caucus meeting.

"And here we have a bumper crop, and the first year without the [mandatory use of the] wheat board, and grain bins are bursting at the seams and the Prairies losing billions of dollars in revenue," he said.

A colder-than-usual winter means trains can't haul as many cars, making it harder to transport grain from farms to ports. Making it worse, farmers harvested a bumper crop last fall, leading to fears the crop will sit in storage and rot.

The Conservative government acted on a longtime promise in 2012 to end the wheat board's monopoly as a marketing board for Prairie wheat.

Martin said "the robber barons with the railroads and the grain companies" are gouging farmers.

"Farmers must be shaking their head, wondering what the hell happened to the security that they used to enjoy with the Canadian Wheat Board," he said.

'Farmers are really upset'

Conservative MPs dispute Martin's assertions about the wheat board.

Medicine Hat Conservative MP Lavar Payne said it's only Liberals who claim the wheat board could have helped matters.

"That is a lot of baloney quite frankly. In fact, I've had farmers tell me that in fact since the wheat board is gone, they've been able to move grain better until this record crop and that the railways haven't done their job," he said.

Payne said he doesn't have the solution.

"Grain farmers are really upset, quite frankly. The grain's not moving, we're not selling to Japan, we're losing customers, the grain prices are down. It's not a good situation," he said.

Vegreville-Wainwright Conservative MP Leon Benoit, who farms grain, said the railways moved the grain well enough until mid-November.

"Since then, it's been abysmal and it is costing farmers a lot of money," he said.

Canada has never been a reliable grain shipper, Benoit said, at times because of the railways, at other times because of the ports, and still others because of grain companies.

'Under the thumb of railways'

With the wheat board, Benoit said, the situation would be worse.

"They did nothing to help co-ordinate, and what they did do is they were one more kind of party to blame," he said.

"They were an extra layer of interference."

Benoit said the railways have to start delivering grain to ports. It's not just about adding cars to existing trains, he said.

"I know the transport minister is looking at options, but in the end they are private business. They are federally regulated, which does give the government a little bit of say."

In question period, Liberal deputy leader Ralph Goodale, who represents Regina's Wascana riding, said the grain backlog is caused by the way the government designed the system. Goodale said it's "under the thumb of railways."

"Farmers are demanding immediate action. So are premiers [Brad] Wall and [Alison] Redford. The feds do have the necessary emergency powers … will the transport minister use them today to get Prairie grain moving and to compensate farmers for their losses?"

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said that, as a former farmer, he understands the problem. 

"That's why we continue to have those discussions with a number of people in the whole supply chain ... we continue to look at all options before us and we'll continue to do that until we have the right solutions that seem to please the vast majority of that supply chain," said Ritz, who represents Saskatchewan's Battlefords-Lloydminster riding.

'Complex supply chain'

A spokesman for Canadian Pacific Railway said grain is the company's single largest commodity and that it has shipped 17 per cent more grain than average last fall. Grain is about 22 per cent of CP's revenue.

"This is a complex supply chain issue involving not just the railways, but all participants," Ed Greenberg said in an email to CBC News.

"For example, the grain handling and transportation system would further benefit from more port elevators working 24/7 to match the round-the-clock operation of the railway. By working 24/7, the ports would unload more rail cars so we can turn them back into service for grain shippers. It should also be noted that CP is prepared to move grain cars to any destination that is most efficient for our customers."

A spokesman for CN Rail said it's doing its "level best" to move the crop, adding 500 hopper cars.

"CN's goal is to lift its performance, as soon as extreme cold temperatures abate, to return to a more normal winter spotting performance of 4,000-plus cars per week," Jim Feeny said in an email to CBC News.

CN is also lining up crews and locomotives to put "as many as 5,500 cars per week at country elevators once the Port of Thunder Bay reopens, likely in early April.

"Such a record spotting performance will allow CN to stay in sync with grain elevator capacity at the main Canadian port gateways it services and to draw down on the backlog of grain," he said.


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