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Agriculture rail siding facility being studied

Claybelt farmers examine merits of loading facility to expand their market reach
Loading grain (supplied)
Moving crops by rail might open up new markets for Timiskaming and Nipissing District farmers. (Ontario Northland Transportation Commission photo)

Farmers along the Highway 11 corridor in northeastern Ontario are looking at the prospect of using rail transport to move product more efficiently to domestic and international markets.

A consultant is carrying out a feasibility study for the Northern Ontario Farm Innovation Alliance (NOFIA) toward developing a plan for a rail siding facility to better serve the farming belt between Nipissing and Cochrane.

The general idea is to divert more agricultural products off the highway and onto track.

“If we’re able to do a rail facility, we can get different commodities going to different markets at a cost comparable or effective way,” said NOFIA administrator Stephanie Vanthof, based in New Liskeard.

“It will get, ideally, more trucks off the road.”

Partners in the study are Koch Farms & Agri-Sales, Grant Farms, Co-op Regional, and the Township of Armstrong.

Vanthof said some Claybelt producers and elevator companies are at the limit of their trucking capacity in moving commodity to market. They’re also cognizant of societal concerns about the environmental and climate impacts of long-haul trucking.

“We’re trying to be proactive on that.”

The potential for a rail loading facility would certainly provide a better all-weather solution versus road transport. It would also circumvent the problem of major accidents frequently stranding truckers on the highway, which logistically impacts shipments reaching their destination on time.

Vanthof explained there are further difficulties in accessing the U.S. market with truckload restrictions at the border.

“That (facility) will alleviate some that if we can have rail cars going into the U.S. But even to eastern markets – to go through Montreal – sometimes it’s easier to load at ports with rail cars than trucks.

“Hopefully, it’s making it logistically easier to get to new markets.”

What the facility would look like hasn’t been determined. The consultant is looking at specific layouts and plans.

Vanthof said it would likely be set up to enable fast loading and unloading, and would be scalable to meet any anticipated demand and interest from other commodity sectors.

“Something low-cost and fairly simple that gets the job done.”

According to a University of Guelph study in 2017, agriculture revenues from the Timiskaming and Nipissing districts totalled $73.5 million in farm cash receipts from various commodities.

The 566 farms in the two districts, comprising more than 99,000 hectares of cropland and pastureland, produce oat and barley, hay, mixed grains, soybeans, potatoes and winter wheat, along with livestock of dairy and beef cows, sheep and lambs, and some poultry, including turkey.

Most of the Timiskaming region along the Highway 11 corridor is serviced by the Ontario Northland Railway (ONR).

The North Bay-headquartered Crown agency has been beating the bushes in looking to steer more freight off of road and onto rail.

In recent years, the regional rail carrier has established multimodal yards in Timmins and Cochrane and is looking to service more of the region’s agricultural sector.

Vanthof said the consultant on the job has quite a bit of experience with Ontario Northland.

Part of the consultant’s report will recommend a preferred site depending on factors such as existing infrastructure and even access during the half-load season.

“There are a couple of different things will make or break a site for us,” said Vanthof.

Another challenge will be negotiating rail fees when the commodities are switched to Class 1 rail carriers like Canadian National.

“It’s important for us to have the ONR onside to give us a bit more leverage power,” she said.

A preliminary draft of the study has been done with feedback already provided to the consultant.

Vanthof is hopeful the study will wrap up this spring.

“If we built a rail siding facility then we want all the elevators to use it or else it’s not going to be maximizing our benefit but not also maximizing their benefit. They’re all on board with the initial study and once we get the results and the recommendations then we’ll sit down and meet with everyone and see where we go from here.”

If the study demonstrates that it’s feasible, she said it should provide encouragement for other farming districts in Northern Ontario, like Rainy River, to consider rail transport.

“Then we can look at the feasibility of developing rail siding facilities across the North.”