Farmers made over 350 requests, as of April 23, for special permits that allow them to truck crops at full weight on provincial roads that are normally off-limits in the Spring.
Minister of Transportation Wayne Drysdale announced that the Alberta government removed road bans for farmers hauling grain to market, effective April 1, to improve the movement of last year’s excess grain.
“Last year we had a bumper crop season and a very cold winter which impacted the railroad companies’ ability to move that grain to market wherever it needs to go, mainly the ports in the West coast, for export,” Drysdale’s press secretary, Christine May said by phone. “Farmers were impacted pretty tremendously by this inability for the rail to be able to move the crop.”
This move followed the federal government’s decision last March to compel the nation’s two major rail operators to move a combined 1 million metric tons of grain each week or face daily fines.
Bans are put in place in the early Spring because rural roads are more likely to sustain damage from heavy trucks as the ground begins to thaw.
“With the rails finally starting to move again just in time for road ban season that presented an additional challenge to farmers who had faced already a number of challenges in getting their grain to market,” May said.
May said it was important for farmers to clear their backlogs, “So we decided that wherever possible we were going to ease those road bans for grain trucks in order to help them get the grain moving.”
While this special permit allows farmers to move some serious weight on provincial roads, they still have to coordinate with local municipalities as well.
The M.D. of Pincher Creek doesn’t always ban their gravel roads but at the moment there are four ranging in limit from 75 to 90 per cent axle weight.
The municipality would make exemptions for farmers who need to transport grain, but it hasn’t received any requests, said the director of operations, Leo Reedyk.
“This tells me that either they’ve already moved their grain significantly to areas where the ban doesn’t affect them, or are not currently looking to transport that grain,” he said.
Both the M.D. and the province are continuously monitoring road conditions.
“It’s still too early to know what the impact (on roads) will be,” May said. “The reason that we’re asking farmers to still apply for the permit, even though it’s at no charge and they will be given it, is because there are some roads that just can’t handle it.”
Wear and tear on the roads, especially during this season, is inevitable but mitigated by the permits and May says the province will cover any damage with their existing maintenance budget.
“If you’re a farmer and your bins are full you have limited options for what you do,” Reedyk said. “Some farmers put it on the ground some farmers might sell it immediately if there is a market for it. And to move that excess of grain that you might not otherwise have takes extra effort on everybody’s part, the farmers, the railroads, everybody.”
Gary Stanford, a farmer from Magrath, director with the Alberta Wheat Commission and the president of the Grain Growers of Canada spoke with The Echo by phone while seeding his fields.
“There’s a lot of farmers in Alberta and a great deal in Saskatchewan that still have most of their grain in their bins,” he said. “And so they’re very concerned because they have land payments due and operating costs.”
Ideal growing conditions and technological advances allowed for the historic crop yield. But transporting such as massive haul in bitterly cold conditions proved to be difficult.
Normally, one train will pull up to 135 cars. Due to different factors this drops to 110 cars in the winter and further still to 85 cars when the temperature falls below negative 30 degrees.
“We just weren’t moving enough grain in the winter time and there were too many ships sitting in the berth over in Vancouver,” Stanford said. “It’s important that the railways and the grain companies work together to keep the grain full at the ports so that we don’t jeopardize our reputation as being a reliable source of grain to the other countries that are buying our grain.”
Stanford was in Singapore in March and eight other countries in Asia last fall on behalf of the GGC to help market Canadian grain.
“That was one thing they were very concerned with over there,” he said. “If they send a ship to Vancouver we need to be able to load it in a timely fashion.”
“I think in Southern Alberta here we’re a little better than most places because we’re close to Vancouver but also we’re close to the feed-lot alley,” said Stanford.
The province’s decision to relax weight limits on roads is a definite boon for farmers says Stanford.
“I’ve talked to a few people that have already got their permits but they’re still being careful,” he said. “My friends that have got their permits are trying to use the secondary roads as little as possible. The main highways you don’t need to get a permit so I think most people are aware the we don’t want to jeopardize and wreck our secondary roads. I think most farmers are respectful of that.”
“It is not something that we do on a regular basis,” May said. “It is not something that we plan on doing on a regular basis. It is a response to a very unique set of challenges that Alberta farmers have been facing this winter. We felt it was appropriate to ease restrictions and accommodate, as much as we possibly could, to help our farmers get their grain to market because agriculture is so important in Alberta.”
Transporting last year’s unusually large harvest through a tough winter isn’t a recurring problem but it showed that action was needed from various levels of government to overcome unexpected flaws in the flow of agricultural products and that similar problems could germinate in the future.
At the moment getting seed in the ground is one of Standord’s top priorities but he is still thinking about the long-term.
“A lot of people have asked me, ‘Well is it more oil on the rail lines, or is it coal, or iron-ore or ferti- lizer?’,” he said. “But I think that the railroad business is going to get busier… so if Canada is growing four to five per cent every year our long-term goal with the Grain Growers of Canada is to try and look at the long-term solutions. If we’re having these problems now how bad is it going to be in 10 years?”
Stanford says that creating more space to load rail cars at elevators, building more passing lanes for trains at key points and finding a solution to increase the hauling ability of trains in the winter could go a long way to building an efficient grain transportation net- work.”