Churchill shipping resumes but grain still on back burner

(CNS Canada file photo by Jade Markus)

MarketsFarm — The first cargo ship in two years left the northern Manitoba port of Churchill on Wednesday, moving supplies to communities in Nunavut.

Rehabilitation efforts at North America’s only deep-water Arctic port are still underway, but there are expectations business through the facility will eventually include grain as well.

OmniTrax, the previous owner of the port and rail line servicing it, abruptly halted grain shipments in the 2016 season, after less than 200,000 tonnes moved through the facility the previous year. Grain movement had slowed since the demise of the Canadian Wheat Board’s single desk in 2012.

Sections of the rail line washed out in 2017 and were left in disrepair until the Arctic Gateway Group (AGG) took over in 2018 and began repairs. AGG is a partnership of Indigenous First Nations and other northern communities, Toronto financier Fairfax Financial Holdings and Saskatchewan-based pulse company AGT Food and Ingredients.

“It’s great to see goods arriving by freight train to the port and loaded for export,” Churchill Mayor Mike Spence said in a release, adding “we have a lot of work to do to continue the reinvestment in the Churchill port and Hudson Bay railway, but today is a great day.”

Elden Boon, head of the Hudson Bay Route Association, which advocates for moving grain through the facility, had heard of modest grain shipments slated for this season.

“We’re optimistic,” said Boon, adding “we knew that things were in pretty dire straits when (AGG) took over.

“When we look down the road, two, three, or four years, I think we’ll see significant amounts (of grain) through there,” said Boon, adding “Churchill has always been a surge port… In years of high production, we always saw larger shipments out of Churchill, and I’m assuming it will continue down that road.”

The HBRA is holding its annual meeting in Flin Flon Aug. 6-7. “This will be the first positive one we’ve had for three years or more,” said Boon.

AGT Foods has previously said it expects to see wheat, canola, lentils and other commodities shipped through the railway and port.

While future grain shipments are a consideration, the current focus is on the Arctic re-supply business and on repairing the rail and port facilities, Omer Al-Katib, director of corporate affairs and investor relations with AGT Foods, said Wednesday.

“We’re taking a very measured approach on what’s being done,” he said.

— Phil Franz-Warkentin writes for MarketsFarm, a Glacier FarmMedia division specializing in grain and commodity market analysis and reporting.

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