Tide turns for Port of Johnstown following $35M upgrade, diversification efforts

Cargo volume up 47% since township took over operations in 2001
port

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Late last summer, the Port of Johnstown on the St. Lawrence River an hour south of Ottawa took delivery of massive turbine parts for a new wind power development.

Destined for EDP Renewables’ planned 100-megawatt Nation Rise Wind Farm in North Stormont, the parts were meant for towers that would stand 130 metres tall at their hubs.

“When (EDP Renewables) came, they basically said, ‘Wow – we can’t believe this is here,’” said Robert Dalley, the port’s general manager. Two months later, the company made the decision to use the port.

Not so long ago, the Port of Johnstown would never have even been considered to handle such an undertaking due to its aging infrastructure and other limitations. The contract would have instead likely gone to the Port of Montreal. 

But a lot has changed over the past 19 years. Roughly $35 million from various levels of government has been invested to repair and upgrade docking facilities, expand the grain elevator and onsite storage capacity, and to increase the speed at which the port can load and unload ships.

Some 1.29 million metric tonnes of total cargo passed through the port in 2019. That’s up 47 per cent from when the Township of Edwardsburgh Cardinal first took over operation of the port in 2001 from Ports Canada and ranks as its second-best year.

There are, of course, ups and downs from year to year due to the unpredictable impact of weather on local crop yields and of foreign demand for Canadian grain. The objective since 2001 has been to find new ways to hedge against that unpredictability through diversification of the port’s business.

Salt, soybeans and more

Originally built in the 1930s to move Prairie wheat to Eastern Canada, the port had waned in importance by the 1990s. When the Township of Edwardsburgh Cardinal purchased the facility, it considered how it could best build on the port’s key asset – a grain elevator – with repairs and upgrades of the docks and cargo-handling infrastructure. This came at a time when many shipping companies were investing in new fleets to ply the St. Lawrence Seaway.

“We saw the investments happening around us, by ports like Montreal and Hamilton, and we had to have faith that if we increased our infrastructure here … we would get more marine business which would complement our agriculture business,” Dalley said.

That agriculture business includes two big local customers. In 2009, Greenfield Global established an ethanol plant across the road from the port. Today, it purchases 23.5 million bushels of local corn a year. A few miles down the road in the town of Cardinal, the Ingredion Canada plant is also a boon to cash crop farmers in Eastern Ontario and Western Quebec who grow non-GMO corn.

Additionally, the port is a major arrival point for road salt to tackle Ontario’s harsh winters, handling a record 620,024 metric tonnes of salt in 2019 alone.

Grain shipments, meanwhile, amounted to 199,041 metric tonnes last year, with soybeans the chief commodity, followed by corn and wheat (this included two ocean-going vessels that were loaded up for export). Other notable cargo include steel, those turbine parts for Nation Rise (a project that’s since stalled due to political wrangling and local opposition) as well as aggregates and calcium chloride for road construction and maintenance.

Last August, the federal government committed $4.8 million (being matched by the township) from its National Trade Corridor Fund to support the port’s Grain Export Infrastructure Renewal and Expansion Project. Loading times for ships are expected as a result to drop to 12-15 hours from two or three days.

“Our agricultural and marine industries are thriving, and the port strives to grow alongside them and to promote growth in our region,” Mayor Pat Sayeau said at the time. “Johnstown provides 1,600 farms with access to market and we have seen exports grow by more than 150 per cent since 2011.”

Other investments continue to be made to upgrade the rail bridge that provides CN and CP access to the port. An agreement has also been reached with the Canadian Border Services Agency to gain access to one of its nearby roads so that oversized cargo, such as those wind turbine parts, have a bypass around the rail bridge. Without that, the restricted height of the bridge would prevent the port from being able to receive any oversized cargo that then has to ship out by truck.

Dalley is conscious of the fact that shipping companies, trucking companies and others still remember a time when the port was a tired old facility that cost them time and money to use. Every new investment in capacity and the speed and quality of service is about erasing those outdated perceptions.

The Port of Johnstown has a combination of advantages over facilities in Montreal, Hamilton and Toronto – no big city traffic gridlock, quick 400-series highway access, quick rail access and the Ogdensburg–Prescott International Bridge to the U.S. next door.

“We are trying to get rid of all the ‘Nos’ and not leave anyone with a reason to not do business with the Port of Johnstown,” Dalley said.

Port of Johnstown at a glance

  • Capable of receiving any vessel that fits the St. Lawrence Seaway locks system.
  • Receives grain from around the region and provides a range of grading, storage, cleaning and drying services in addition to loading vessels bound for overseas destinations. 
  • Supported 357 jobs and generated $37.1 million in economic activity in Ontario in 2017.