Business

Losing at our own game, going against the grain

Roy MacGregor January 1 1979
Business

Losing at our own game, going against the grain

Roy MacGregor January 1 1979

Losing at our own game, going against the grain

Business

Ed Gall double-clutched to a lower gear, believing the ruts in the access road would be the toughest part of the long grain haul into Weyburn, Saskatchewan. The real washboard, however, doesn’t begin until the wheat arrives at the terminal. A shortage of hopper cars for shipments east to Thunder Bay or west to Vancouver where 11 grain ships huddled impatiently and empty in the harbor last week, meant so many potholes that Ed Gall’s grain would consider the truck’s low gear more like Star Wars ’hyperspace.

Too, at Weyburn Inland Terminal,

Gall had to nudge the truck through the testy picket lines made up of one dozen angry Saskatchewan farmers, members of the Canadian Agriculture Movement, who begged Gall to keep his wheat at home rather than suffer through the insults ahead, including, for Western grain growers, a labortroubled Vancouver dockyard. Surviving that, and after loading onto a waiting Chinese ship, it would probably be clear sailing. But the

ship might never come back.

It is not yet a case of falling off the edge of the world, but Canada’s market for grain is beginning to slip out of her hands. While retaining 11 per cent of the world export business, Canada’s reputation as a dependable deliverer is deteriorating. Due in part to moves toward U.S.-China diplomatic ties, the more aggressive Americans will soon sell twice the wheat to China that Canada sells. Also, when Japan, another good customer, put out grain tenders recently, Canada did not even bother to bid. The Canadian Wheat Board knew deliveries couldn’t be met.

Ironically, the state of the Canadian grain farmer is worsening at a time when the Canadian farmer generally is improving his condition. Farm income rose a remarkable 29 per cent in 1978 to $4.42 billion, mostly through soaring beef prices. It would have been an even more remarkable year had the grain industry not had so many problems, some of them difficult to comprehend. After the largest crop ever (140 million bushels), rapeseed has become Canada’s second-most important crop. But moving rapeseed to market last fall was almost impossible because needed hopper cars remain a vanishing species in the West. Boxcar allocation falls under the wheat board’s control; rapeseed, however, is marketed by independent grain handlers and exporters, and the wheat board was using all available boxcars to move, naturally, wheat. In desperation, rapeseed was trucked to Vancouver at four times rail costs, losing valuable sales because shipment fell behind demand.

But the wheat board is not the obvious culprit. Last April the board pleaded with Ottawa for $200 million to upgrade 5,000 boxcars and purchase 4,000 new ones, mere patchwork as the board claims 20,000 new cars are needed if Canada is even to hold on to its export market share in the 1980s. When the new cars weren’t forthcoming—Canadian Pacific assured Ottawa there were enough —the wheat board tendered directly for up to 2,000 new hopper cars which, the farmers soon realized, would be paid for out of their own pockets. CP has even refused to take part in the gov-

ernment’s shared-cost repair program, although cars are going out of service at a rate of 1,800 a year. Last week, in the House of Commons, Transport Minister Otto Lang said he had never agreed with CP’s claim that the present number of cars was enough and plans to meet with the four Western premiers in Winnipeg in the next few weeks to iron things out.

The problem, unfortunately, goes beyond the railways. The new West Coast terminal at Prince Rupert was to have eased Vancouver’s load, but mudslides and flooding meant all this year’s grain went to Vancouver, described by one official as a “medieval port.” Fires, renovations and mechanical difficulties have only added to the backlog already created by an unhappy labor force whose memorandum of agreement ran out on Dec. 31. The solution that is becoming more and more obvious is the appointment of a grain transport controller-something Lang has already hinted at—to run all phases of the grain movement. It would be, however, a demanding task. As Geoffrey Sloss, the manager of the B.C. Grain Shippers’ Clearance Association, says, “The only transport commissioner who would work out is God.” Roy MacGregor, with correspondents’ reports