Bev Wieben is a farmer in northwestern Alberta’s Peace region, a slice of the province where roughly one-third of the crops remain unharvested. Farmers in the area ship grain on the Canadian National Railway Co. network, but the rail strike is not her biggest problem – yet.
Ms. Wieben has some wheat and canola still in the fields – where it will likely remain until spring – but right now, she is dealing with the three frozen piles of grain she and her husband harvested this fall. They need to chip it loose, augur it into a truck to get it to their farmyard, then run it through a grain dyer. The grain is so wet that it must go through the dryer twice, otherwise the excess moisture could cause it to rot in the bins.
“I’ve already had a talk with my banker telling her that I’m not going to be able to make my December loan [payment]," said Ms. Wieben, whose farm is near Fairview, about 600 kilometres northwest of Edmonton. “You can only [renegotiate] your loan so many times before the banker goes: ‘That’s enough.’"
And so in the back of her mind, she worries that she and her husband, Greg, will have to auction their machinery, ending their farm.
“I don’t think we’re quite there yet, but it could happen if the strike goes on long enough."
Roughly 3,200 CN employees, who are members of the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference union, launched a strike last Tuesday. In the Prairies, farmers are nervous they will not be able to get their products to market, adding another layer of stress to what was already a difficult – and costly – crop year for some. That, and trade disputes are dragging on, most notably China’s import ban on the majority of Canada’s canola.
After nearly a week, there is no immediate end in sight to the CN strike and the railway said on the weekend it would temporarily lay off 70 workers starting Thursday at its Halifax port operations. The two sides appear to remain far apart in a dispute that has centred around long working hours and what the union has described as dangerous working conditions.
The federal government is also facing renewed pressure to quickly recall Parliament to pass back-to-work legislation, as the disruption has hit numerous sectors, including agriculture and energy, and as Quebec warned it was running out of propane. However, Ottawa says the solution should be found at the bargaining table.
Devin Dreeshen, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry Minister, said a prolonged strike would hurt grain producers.
“There’s a trickle down effect throughout the whole supply chain that ultimately gets paid by farmers,” he said. “After a very difficult year weather-wise, to have a rail strike is just another frustration.”
Mr. Dreeshen said he spoke with Marie-Claude Bibeau, the federal Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, last Thursday. Mr. Dreeshen said she told him that she had spoken with Transportation Minister Marc Garneau about the issue. Their thoughts, Mr. Dreeshen said, were to wait on the sidelines to see if CN and Teamsters can resolve the dispute without Ottawa intervening.
“That was a little disappointing, I thought, to hear there wasn’t a sense of urgency,” Mr. Dreeshen said. “I think back-to-work legislation – that to me is the only way the trains are going to get moving again.”
This is peak season for grain prices, making the rail disruption especially worrisome for farmers. Industries across the country are under pressure as the strike continues. Quebec is at risk of running out of propane, for example.
Mr. Dreeshen farms near Red Deer, Alta., and said he had to run some of his grain through a grain dryer, which is energy intensive. Natural gas, diesel and propane are among the fuel sources used to power grain dryers, and the incoming federal carbon tax means drying grain is about to become more expensive for farmers. Ms. Wieben is racing to dry as much of her grain as possible before the tax kicks in Jan. 1.
Alberta farmers have collectively harvested 88 per cent of their major crops as of Nov. 5, according to the latest crop report issued Nov. 12. By way of comparison, farmers had taken off 81 per cent of their major crops by Nov. 8, 2016, which was another tough harvest.
The Peace region is the furthest behind this year, with only about 64 per cent of the major crops – spring wheat, barley, canola, dry peas and oats – harvested as of Nov. 5. Farmers in the northeast had about 87 per cent of major crops off the fields by then, compared with 92 per cent in the central region, 94 per cent in the northwest and 97 per cent in the south.
Meanwhile, Saskatchewan farmers have harvested 93 per cent of all crops, according to the provincial report measuring progress up to Nov. 18. Saskatchewan’s harvest prediction is more optimistic than Alberta’s.
“Producers are hopeful that much of the remaining crop will be able to be taken off prior to winter, although there are indications that some of the crop will likely be left out until the spring,” Saskatchewan’s report said. The quality of grain, however, is lower, which translates into lower sale prices for farmers.
About half of the 360 Prairie elevators are captive to CN, according to Wade Sobkowich, the executive director of the Western Grain Elevator Association. These facilities, he said, are at about 65-per-cent capacity. That means some farmers may be able to deliver grain to elevators, but the industry can not get it to foreign markets and importers are likely making alternative arrangements.
Empty vessels on the West Coast, Mr. Sobkowich said, will be fined about $10,000 to $15,000 a day. Even when the strike ends, the system will be backed up.
“The longer it goes on, the longer it takes to smooth out,” he said.
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