Farmer’s perspective on rail backlog offered to politicians

Last Friday, Allison Ammeter was mulling over the rail backlog that’s preventing Prairie farmers from getting their crops to market.

Last Friday, Allison Ammeter was mulling over the rail backlog that’s preventing Prairie farmers from getting their crops to market.

Then the phone rang, and within hours she was on a plane to Ottawa, where she testified before a House of Commons committee and spoke to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, as well as ministers Peter MacKay, Jason Kenney, Ron Nicholson, Lisa Raitt and Kevin Sorenson.

Ammeter, who farms with her husband Michael southwest of Sylvan Lake, is vice-president of the Alberta Pulse Growers Commission and a director with the Grain Growers of Canada.

She was dispatched to Parliament Hill by the latter group, which had been asked to discuss the rail transport issue with members of the Commons standing committee on agriculture and agri-food on Monday.

Ammeter felt it was important to “step up” and offer a farmer’s perspective. Reaction from committee members suggested she was right.

“It’s amazing how, when a farmer sits there and says, ‘This is how it’s affecting us,’ that they all sit up straight and lean forward.”

Several members of the all-parties committee are farmers themselves, noted Ammeter, including Red Deer MP Earl Dreeshen.

“Even in the questions, you could tell it was, ‘What can we do to fix this problem for you and get the grain moving?’”

In her presentation, Ammeter described how much of last year’s record crop remains in bins or on the ground — even though port terminals in Vancouver are half empty and ships there are waiting to be loaded.

She related a story about one Japanese ship that waited weeks before sailing to Seattle and taking on a load of American wheat there.

Ammeter also talked about the cash-flow crunch that’s affecting farmers’ ability to buy the inputs they’ll need to plant the next crop.

And she reinforced the Grain Growers of Canada’s recommendations for change: improved efficiencies, better communication and co-ordination, greater investment by railways in equipment like engines and cars, and amendments to the Fair Rail Freight Service Act so that rail companies are subject to monetary penalties for late deliveries.

The committee also heard representatives of Pulse Canada, the Western Grain Elevator Association, the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association and the Canadian Canola Growers Association. And on Wednesday, representatives from the Alberta Federation of Agriculture, the Inland Terminal Association of Canada, the Thunder Bay Port Authority, Canadian National Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway spoke.

Dreeshen said Ammeter did an “excellent job” of communicating the concerns of producers.

“She certainly delivered a lot of common sense to the conversation.”

Dreeshen said CP and CN have already committed to take steps to improve the situation.

“I think they are aware that things have to happen.”

In addition to quick fixes, the federal government is pushing for long-term improvements to the transportation system in anticipation of bigger crops in the future as farming practices and technologies continue to improve.

“We’re trying to look at everything in the system.”

For now, Ammeter is worried about the impacts of the current deficiencies. In addition to lost sales and damage to Canada’s reputation as a grain exporter, a drop in ag commodity prices are a big concern.

“They are a third lower than they were a year ago and going down,” she said, adding that even producers with contracts in place won’t get paid until their products move.

“Take the disposable income away from the agricultural community to where they’re barely holding on to put in their crop, and you are going to see all kinds of things occurring in the Prairie economy,” warned Ammeter.

While in Ottawa, she was invited to receptions related to the federal budget, which was tabled on Tuesday. There, Ammeter met the prime minister and a number of his ministers.

She left satisfied that the rail transport issue is one they’re familiar with.

“I know they’re all talking about it.”

Officials with CP and CN told the Advocate recently that their companies have been carrying record volumes of grain, but last year’s bumper harvest has made it difficult to keep pace with demand. They added that extreme cold weather this winter has hampered efforts to carry crops to market.

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