First it was the cold, wet spring that delayed seeding a month; then drought, which left undeveloped wheat stalks drooping in the fields. Finally, a killing frost destroyed all hopes of a bumper crop. For Saskatchewan wheat farmer Barry Frisk, 40, whose four sections are located south of Regina, the frustrations just keep piling up. “You never know what you have until harvest,” he broods, “and then you can’t get rid of it.”
With the Prairie grain harvest now half-completed, crop forecasters are predicting a 30-million-ton yield, down 21 per cent from last year. And more problems, ones man-made, lie ahead. Discontent with the current method of transporting grain is growing as farmers demand a major overhaul of the system—one that is as outdated as the plow horse. Bottlenecks clogging the railway lines and a shortage of hopper cars have left the grain piling up in the farmers’ bins. Last year, the confusion on the rails cost Canadian farmers some $500 million in lost sales.
That is why, in late July, Transport Minister Don Mazankowski, the Tories’ self-styled “action man,” once an Alberta farmer himself, appointed a three-member emergency task force to find ways of moving the grain. His target is to ship 20 per cent more grain in 1979. “We hope this will go a long way to eliminate some of the finger-pointing of the past,” says the rumpled, chainsmoking minister. “The mood seems right for co-operation.” Last week, in Winnipeg, the mecca of Canada’s grain trade, the task force released its first handful of recommendations.
The most important one calls for the appointment of a grain co-ordinatornicknamed the “grain czar” by the western press—who, with far-reaching powers, will try to smooth out the kinks in grain transportation during a fouryear term. As Jack Murta, head of the emergency task force, predicts: “After four years, he’ll probably have everyone upset with him.” Last week, Murta’s task force started drawing up a short list from about 50 candidates called from grain groups across the Prairies. Names such as Mac Runciman, president of United Grain Growers, and Bill Nielson, now retired, who was formerly with Cargill Grain, are grinding in the rumor mill for the job.
Speeding up grain delivery is sure to help more than Canadian farmers. Last year, Canada’s balance of payments was teetering when wheat sales to the Soviet Union, Japan and China were lost, simply because the grain couldn’t be delivered. This year lost sales could cost Canada $1 billion. “We can’t afford to let the grain sit in the bins any longer,” says Murta. Politically, the pressure is on to fulfil Prime Minister Joe Clark’s election promise to increase wheat exports by 50 per cent in the next five years—a program that Clark hopes will woo the West and restore its faith in Ottawa.
Murta’s committee is also studying
ways of moving grain faster. One idea is to use trucks to haul grain on short runs when branch-line tracks are snowbound. Another is to relieve the shortage of rail hopper cars by leasing some from the United States—although shortages sometimes occur there, too. Unit trains that carry only one grade of one kind of grain are also being considered, so that cars won’t have to be relinked and re-routed. But cost, as always, counts and Mazankowski still doesn’t know what his budget will be this year. One critic, Saskatchewan Premier Allan Blakeney, has called the task force “an attempt to buy time.” And that province’s agriculture minister, Gordon MacMurchy, last week accused the study group of steaming ahead without consulting provincial ministers, saying: “It appears the spirit of co-operation between the federal and provincial governments, discussed so generously, is over.”
Nevertheless, Mazankowski has pledged to make grain his No. 1 priority. Shortly after becoming minister, he announced a 90-day freeze on rail-line abandonment while he decides what to do with 1,420 miles of little-used track. He also resumed negotiations between Ottawa and a consortium of grain companies on new terminal facilities for Prince Rupert, B.C. The new elevator will relieve the over-taxed terminal in
Vancouver, and will handle eight to 10 million bushels of grain each year. Last week, Mazankowski also announced that an additional 2,000 boxcars will be rehabilitated for grain service. “We’re giving them a further lease on life for at least five years,” he promised.
But until the grain actually gets moving, farmers such as Ron Colpitts, a 30-year-old Oxbow, Saskatchewan, grain-grower, remain demoralized and wondering, once again, whether farming is really worth it. Colpitts has 8,000 bushels stored in his bins from last year and doesn’t have much hope of selling all of this year’s skimpy harvest. This week, 156,000 Prairie farmers, all Canadian Wheat Board permit-holders, will be going to court in a $690-million class-action suit against Canadian National and Canadian Pacific for not hauling their grain. Most farmers are just as suspicious of politicians today as they are of the railways. As Bill Dascavich, vice-president of the National Farmers Union, says of the new Tory measures: “We see a lot of ink in the papers, but that’s it. The movement of grain is slower this year than it was a year ago.”
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