Potential rail strike clouds picture for Prairie farmers already facing dampened crop expectations

CN Photo. A CN rail train is shown in this file photo.

Crop development is behind due to excess moisture and cooler-than-normal conditions

Michael Joel-Hansen, Regina Leader-Post

There hasn’t been a shortage of moisture for farmers in Saskatchewan this summer, but that’s not necessarily good news.

Crops are in good condition after widespread rain on the prairies, according to the province’s most recent crop report, but crop development is behind where it normally is at this time of year due to excess moisture and cooler-than-normal conditions.

Bill Prybylski, a vice-president at the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan (APAS) who farms in the province’s southeast, said the moisture was welcome early on as it helps crops develop, but the continuing rain and cool conditions slowed things down.

“Recent heavy rainfalls, though, have kind of put a damper on expectations,” he said. “Also, the crops are a little bit slow in development. I think the cool weather, particularly the cool nights, has delayed crop development.”

Prybylski said more rain in most areas of the province would end up doing more harm than good. Most farmers want warmer temperatures, preferably in the mid-20s, which he said would be good for crops.

“It would be awesome if we could get a couple weeks of that and get the crops maturing,” he said.

Despite these challenges, Prybylski said there is still an overall sense of optimism that farmers will pull off a good, average-sized crop come harvest.

But farmers, like many shippers in Canada, now face some uncertainty due to a potential disruption in rail service.

On June 29, the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference (TCRC), which represents workers at Canadian National Railway Co. (CN) and Canadian Pacific Kansas City Ltd. (CPKC) announced their membership had once again voted in overwhelming numbers to give their union a strike mandate.

A previous strike mandate that would have allowed workers to walk off the job in late May expired after the dispute was referred to the Canada Industrial Relations Board (CIRB), which prohibited the union from taking job action. Workers at both companies have been in a protracted dispute with the companies over proposed changes to scheduling and rest periods.

Prybylski said farmers are worried about the possibility of disruptions in rail service, adding that it would be devastating for producers looking to move their crops in a timely manner.

He said with a good average crop coming off the fields, producers will need all the people involved in the process to be on their game.

“All the players in the movement of grain would need to be stepping up their game to get a good crop off to export position (in) a timely manner,” he said.

Prybylski said rail companies can be hit and miss in moving grain in a timely manner when there is a good-sized crop. Movement was good this past year, but the milder winter likely made it easier for the railways to move crops.

CN Rail said it relies on a range of sources, including provincial and federal governments, grain companies and private market analysts, when it comes to projecting grain volumes, but early crop production forecasts are subject to variability due to a range of factors, including weather.

“CN closely monitors crop progression throughout the growing season,” it said in a statement. 

CPKC said customer forecasts are an important part of its business and it’s making plans to handle the expected higher grain volumes.

“CPKC is working with our grain customers to obtain a firm understanding of their specific demand forecasts for the upcoming crop year in order to meet the needs of the grain supply chain,” it said in a statement.

Prybylski said farmers hope any work stoppage due to a labour dispute can be quickly resolved and that their grain can be moved in a timely manner.

“A lot of producers count on moving grain early in the harvest season, both to make room for the rest of the harvest and also to pay the bills that keep coming in,” he said.