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Port elevators contribute to northwestern Ontario's agricultural renaissance

Richardson Terminals mark 100 years on Thunder Bay's waterfront

Over the last century, there has been a constant presence on the Thunder Bay waterfront as an employer, landmark, and more recently, a driver of change in local agriculture.

The towering grain elevators of Richardson Terminals have the rare distinction of being under the same ownership for 100 years.

“We are still in the same location and the same company, while others have closed, amalgamated, or changed hands,” said Gerry Heinrichs, plant manager for the terminal.

The Thunder Bay Richardson Terminals, also known locally as JRI, consists of two elevators side-by-side: one on Marina Park Drive and the other on Shipyard Road, located in the north end of the city.

It is one of four terminals owned by JRI located in Canada. The others are in Hamilton; Sorel-Tracy, northeast of Montreal on the St. Lawrence River; and Vancouver.

The Thunder Bay Terminals are the furthest inland of the company's port elevators, connecting Western Canada to the Atlantic Ocean, and are regarded as major hubs for shipping to the United States, Mexico and South America.

This summer, it celebrated the centennial with a big family-friendly party for employees past and present, including the commemoration of an inukshuk, quarried from local amethyst-studded granite, in a small park next to its Marina Park Drive Terminal.

Heinrichs said the elevators themselves have a lot of history, with decades of infrastructure and upgrades layered on each other, as well as several generations of workers that have come and gone.

History is everywhere on the grounds. From the giant concrete James Richardson and Sons motif on the main walkway on the Marina Park Drive elevator, to the decades-old gangways and doors alongside state-of-the-art cleaning machines and loading systems.

Their day-to-day operations have stayed largely the same for those 100 years. Grain products are transported, cleaned, graded, inspected for hazards like mould and gravel, stored in elevators and loaded onto ships bound for domestic and international markets.

Over the decades the port has faced numerous challenges, including radical changes in transport and a decline in business in the port as a whole.

But Richardson turned those challenges into opportunities, positioning itself to become a stronger and critical component of the region's economy.

The company's business model changed dramatically in 2014.

The federal government eliminated the Canadian Wheat Board, which had regulated when farmers could harvest their cereal crops.

That year also saw a bumper crop that caused bottlenecks in the supply chain.

“There weren't enough rail cars to transport all the grain we would normally get from Manitoba and western Ontario. Companies had to put a lot of it on trucks,” Heinrichs said. “None of the terminals here were set up to take trucks, only rail or boats.”

That necessity brought on a major change for the terminals. The company set up a truck unloading section, which is still in operation to this day, and is the only terminal in Thunder Bay that takes transport trucks.

The change in how they manage different kinds of transport had an unexpected bonus. It allowed the terminal to accept smaller shipments from local producers, opening up opportunities for surplus and cash crops to be sold directly to a local terminal.

This was a new concept for local producers, Heinrichs said. Before, area farmers had to ship their product west to Winnipeg for sale, cleaning and loading into the supply chain.

“It was a major pain for them to have to transport it so far. This let them take it to our facility and we would buy it."

Knowing they could sell to a local distributor has spurred a renaissance in local agriculture. Richardson is the sole purchaser of all the locally-produced soy and canola crops.

Both of those are relatively new to the area, and are being grown as a cash crop in the region thanks, in part, to Richardson accepting them.

Jeff Burke, co-owner of Brule Creek Farms in Conmee Township, about 45 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, said he has sold some surplus from his canola crop to Richardson in Thunder Bay.

He said it's been a great relationship and credits the terminals for restarting cash crops in the region.

“I've gotten to the point where I am growing a little more than I need for my operations and I have sold some to Richardson. They are great to work with, I've never had a problem.

“It's not much for me, but there are more farmers in this area that are starting to grow cash crops again, knowing they have a local outlet to sell it to.”

Heinrichs explained much of the cash crop comes from the Rainy River region.

Nationally, both terminals have been among Canada's top handlers of durum wheat, oats and feed peas for years.

The company also works directly with the Thunder Bay Agricultural Station, affiliated with Lakehead University, to help introduce new crops, improve productivity and yields, and train current and future producers.

It's in the company's best interest to support the local economy, Heinrichs said.

As well, it's been the corporate mandate since Richardson's inception a century and a half ago.

Beyond grain transport, the terminal encourages career choices and employment opportunities through internships and scholarship contributions.

The investment in people is starting to show.

“As the boomers and the older employees retire and move on, there are more younger faces around here. It's great to see people coming to work in this place,” he said. “It bodes well for the future of the terminal.”

With a workforce of 50, Richardson is one of the few terminals that conducts tours on occasion.