Farmers fear losing harvest if rail strike drags on

Farmers fear losing harvest if rail strike drags on

Grain farmers in eastern Ontario and western Quebec fear their harvests could be lost because the ongoing CN Rail strike has cut off the supply of propane they need to dry their crops.

Mark Verdonck has shut down operations at his farm about 125 kilometres east of Ottawa, just over the Ontario-Quebec border. His propane tanks empty, Verdonck's storage bins are filled with 250 tonnes of wet corn that could soon go to waste.

It's more than losing business, it's losing everything we worked for the whole year. - Mark Verdonck

"It's a huge disaster," he said. "It's more than losing business, it's losing everything we worked for the whole year."

The propane powers Verdonck's grain dryer, which is used to dehumidify the crops so they don't ferment or go mouldy when they're in storage.

"You cannot store that for a long time," Verdonck said. "You got to dry it."

On Tuesday, 3,200 CN conductors, train and yard workers walked off the job after negotiations on a new contract with the railway were unsuccessful. The same day, Verdonck got a call from his propane supplier telling him he wouldn't receive another shipment until the trains are running again. 

Jean Deslisle/CBC

In the meantime, he's rotating his yield from one bin to another in hopes of keeping it from rotting.

"Of course, we won't be able to do that for weeks. You can hold on like that for a few days but that's about it," he said.

Sound of silence

You just have to listen to understand the impact the propane shortage is having, said Dominique Leroux, who farms nearby.

"At this time of the year you would hear combines in the fields harvesting the crops, you would hear dryer fans to dry the corn, to cool the corn," Leroux said. "Now it's pretty quiet."

Jean Deslisle/CBC

He said there's only one word to sum up what farmers are feeling right now: "Desperation."

Meanwhile, acres of crops haven't been harvested yet because of this year's late growing season. If the corn is left in the field much longer, it will go to waste, too, Verdonck said. But until his dryers are working he has no way to store it.

The federal government has urged CN Rail and the union representing the workers, the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, to continue negotiating. In the meantime, farmers said they're watching this year's profits go to ruin.

Propane suppliers have dispatched trucks in an effort to keep their product flowing, but it's impossible to make up the volume that was carried by rail, said Christian Levac, one of the owners of Levac Propane, a family-owned business serving the region.

In Quebec, 85 per cent of the propane supply is shipped by rail, and the remaining supply is being stretched thin.

Jean Delisle/CBC

Levac said his company has had to prioritize residential customers, institutions such as hospitals and farms with livestock, and that's meant saying no to customers who need propane to run grain dryers. 

"It's our civil responsibility," he said. 

Consumers could feel pinch

Even if the rail strike is resolved quickly, it may be too late for farmers to recoup their loses because of the backlog of propane shipments, said Markus Haerle, one of the directors of Ontario Grain Farmers. 

"Agriculture is being cut off completely," Haerle said. "It's a huge issue."

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

He said the lack of propane is hurting farmers across the country, but particularly in eastern Canada where there are fewer pipelines.

If grain farmers are left without propane for much longer, Haerle said he expects consumers are going to start to feel the financial impact as well, particularly when it comes to the price of meat. 

"The daily consumer is going to be feeling the impact of this because some of that corn goes into animal feed," he said.  "There's certainly going to be an impact to everybody."

Laura Osman/CBC