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Propane shortage, poor conditions complicate Canadian corn harvest

By James Morgan 
A recent eight-day strike at Canadian National Railways (CN), combined with poor weather and crop drying conditions has caused considerable problems for corn farmers, drying facilities, and the propane industry in eastern Ontario and in Quebec.  Even though a tentative agreement was reached Tuesday between CN and more than 3,000 Teamsters Union members who have returned to work, the situation for harvesting and drying corn remains serious.
“It’s actually a disaster,” said Markus Haerle, who is Chair of the Grain Farmers of Ontario (GFO) and farms near the eastern Ontario village of St-Isidore.  Most of the propane used at elevators to dry corn and other crops is shipped by rail from Alberta.  The gas is a by-product of oil refining.
Haerle said all propane shipments by rail stopped on Wednesday, November 20.  He said a lot of corn is still in the fields because wet conditions have made it difficult to harvest. In fact, 20 per cent of Haerle's corn crop still needs to be harvested and the dryer he has on his property could not operate because there was no propane available.
Haerle said propane would likely not reach customers for three or four weeks after the strike ended.
The Canadian Propane Association (CPA), which represents distributors across the country, welcomed the end of the strike but warned that the impact of it could still be felt for several more weeks.
“We knew that the drastic reduction in rail support during the strike was going to impact the logistics in the immediate aftermath of the strike and now we are working diligently to get supply back to normal,” said CPA Chair Dan Kelly.
Haerle explained that 80 per cent of all propane used on farms is shipped by rail, and only 20 per cent of it can be trucked in from western Canada.  Haerle said the shortage could soon start to affect residential and commercial consumers who rely on propane for cooking and heating.
Levac Propane of St-Isidore did not respond to inquires about how business there is being affected.  The MacEwen drying facility in Maxville, Ontario normally dries 1,000 tonnes of corn per day and uses Levac as its supplier.
“We’re shut down for drying right now,” said Operations Manager Eric Metcalfe.
MacEwen had enough propane to dry what was in its wet bin before it went bad, he said.  However, it will receive corn and beans again until the bins are full, with the hope that the propane supply returns soon.
Major propane-fueled dryers in St-Isidore and Moose Creek Ontario were also shut down.
Other local elevators were not affected by the propane shortage.  Wilson Farms near Vankleek Hill Ontario uses Ottawa-based W.O. Stinson as its propane supplier.  Owner Kevin Wilson said Stinson trucks its propane to Eastern Ontario from a terminal in Sarnia, which is across the St. Clair River from Port Huron Michigan, while most industrial propane used locally usually comes from a rail terminal in Valleyfield Quebec, near Montreal.
Wilson Farms is taking wet corn from places that cannot process it.  Kevin Wilson said they normally dry 2,000 tonnes per day, but that amount doubled to 4,000 tonnes in three days.  The 23 employees at the facility are working around the clock to keep up.
An additional one million bushels of storage capacity was added this year at Wilson Farms.  However, the current situation has them short on space.  Kevin Wilson said they now must ship 15 to 20 loads of dried corn away each day in order to ensure there is room to receive more.
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