Reliance on exports means the seaway strike causes greater uncertainty, local farmer says

seaway strike Wray Holmes
Wray Holmes is a full-time soybean, corn and grain farmer in rural Eastern Ontario. Photo by Sarah MacFarlane

Wray Holmes has his morning coffee on the porch of his home in the tiny hamlet of Inkerman, just outside of Winchester, Ont., and surveys the 300 acres of farmland that he depends on for his livelihood. 

His father bought the farm in 1953 and Holmes has cultivated it full-time since 1977. But this harvest season, he says there is an uncertainty in the industry he has never seen before in his career.

Since Sunday, 361 Unifor members and workers with the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp. have been on strike, effectively shutting down the key trade corridor and, with it, all exports of local products.

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Yesterday, the federal government instructed workers and management in the strike to sit down with a mediator this Friday and hash out their differences, as groups ranging from grain farmers to steelmakers feel the squeeze.

The union and management authority both said on Tuesday they would comply with the government notice for mediation.

But in the midst of harvest season, local farmers are anxiously waiting for news.

At Holmes Hill Farms, Holmes grows and sells soybeans, grain and field corn, also known as cow corn. Until recently, his harvest was sold to local feed mills and starch plants, but he said the industry has been increasingly relying on exports.

“Eastern Ontario is becoming an export place because we grow more grain than we can feed, so there’s more going through the (Port of Johnstown),” he explained. “In 2023, two-thirds of our income came from loading it on a boat and shipping it off.”

Holmes said he has the capacity and infrastructure at his farm to store his crop and do his own drying process, which can help preserve his harvest. But with soybean season coming to an end and corn coming to top of mind, he said the effects of the strike will be trickling down across the region.

“All the beans in Eastern Ontario are almost off the fields and they have now ended up (at the Port of Johnstown) to be loaded on a boat,” he said.

However, nothing is leaving the port.

The Port of Johnstown, located on the St. Lawrence River in the Township of Edwardsburgh and Cardinal near the junction of highways 401 and 416, is the primary exporter for local producers. 

“Now, all those beans are staged in their bins, sitting there until the strike’s over. But corn is still standing in the fields because it has no place to go,” Holmes explained. “Usually, corn would flow into the port to be shipped. And that’s not going to happen.”

There are risks to the crop harvest waiting in the fields, he said. From animal damage to potential ice rain or heavy snow, Holmes said farmers face losing the corn the longer it waits to be harvested. Fortunately, he said, his own crop has already been sold locally.

When Unifor issued the 72-hour strike notice last week, general manager at the Port of Johnstown Robert Dalley said he was concerned about the loss of income that local farmers could face.

“Right now, it’s soybean harvest and if we don’t export it, the whole system will be backed up. Elevators will plug and we won’t be able to bring any more soybeans in,” he said. “We are the biggest exporter for our producers and if we can’t ship it out, they don’t get paid.”

Dalley said the port usually moves about 200,000 metric tons of soybeans annually. Less than half of that has currently been exported, with “at least another 100,000 tons that has to come off the fields.” 

Based on the current market price for soybeans, Dalley said local farmers, producers and other stakeholders along the supply chain could be collectively losing up to $62 million in income. 

A prolonged strike could have a “trickle-down effect” on other crops, Dalley added, with the corn season quickly approaching. “It could potentially affect more than just the soybeans and be an even bigger problem for our producers.”

The full Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway system, also known as “Highway H2O,” serves more than 100 ports and commercial docks. Grain, iron ore, petroleum products, stone and coal are among its key commodities.

The seaway alone supported some 66,600 jobs and $12.3 billion in economic activity last year, according to a July study by U.S.-based marine economic analysis firm Martin Associates and commissioned by industry stakeholders. The broader Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway system supports $46.8 billion in economic activity annually, the study said.

Bruce Burrows, CEO of the Chamber of Marine Commerce, estimated the seaway shutdown is costing the economy roughly $100 million in lost revenue daily.

With files from The Canadian Press

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