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Propane shortage pains Ontario, Quebec producers

Eastern Canadian farmers look for alternate drying options amid a propane shortage due to the CN rail strike.


November 25, 2019
By Stephanie Gordon


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Producers in Ontario and Quebec are looking for alternate ways to dry their corn amid an ongoing rail strike that is limiting the availability of propane.

On Tuesday, Nov. 19, Canadian National Railway (CN) workers went on strike due to concerns of long working hours and dangerous working conditions.

Update: As of Nov. 26, 2019, Teamsters Canada said it has reached a tentative deal with CN Rail to end the week-long strike. CN’s normal operations will resume tomorrow (November 27) at 6 a.m. local time across Canada, a statement from Teamsters Canada said.

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In Eastern Canada, propane is mainly delivered by rail, even making up 85 per cent of Quebec’s supply of propane. The rail strike has resulted in a shortage of propane which is adding more challenges to an already challenging harvest.

Given the late corn season and wet harvest conditions, producers are relying on dryers to keep their grain alive. Wet grain can rot in a bin within days, and while rotating grain from one bin to another is a possible solution, it isn’t a sustainable one. A spoiled crop will hurt sales for producers already battling tough harvest conditions and international trade disputes.

As of Nov. 22, no propane was going to grain dryers and fuel supplies to eastern Ontario farms were dwindling, according to an interview Markus Haerle, president of the Grain Farmers of Ontario, did with the Financial Post. Haerle also shared that distributors have told grain farmers in southern Ontario “not to expect further shipments of propane for grain drying as home heating and other essential services have priority.”

Several agriculture associations, from the Grain Farmers of Ontario to the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, have urged the government to reconvene cabinet ahead of schedule to resolve the CN rail strike. The parliament is scheduled to reconvene on Dec. 5, 2019, two weeks after the strike would have been announced. In addition, The Grain Farmers of Ontario and Grain Growers of Quebec have sent a request to meet with Marie-Claude Bibeau, federal minister of agriculture, and Marc Garneau, minister of transport, to address the urgent need to resume the delivery of propane. The government’s message during this time is that they will leave the solution to the collective bargaining process instead of stepping in.

Producers across Eastern Canada are frustrated and demanding for an end to the strike. Some Quebec farmers have even gone so far as to dump bags of corn at the steps of the prime minister’s Papineau riding office in Montreal on Monday morning.

In the meantime, trucks have been dispatched to keep propane moving but the work-around solution isn’t able to make up the volume that was carried by rail. David Carruth, chairman of the Ontario Trucking Association, was quoted in the Financial Post saying, “The difference in the equipment needed to haul propane versus what we use to haul dry goods is like the difference between a Ferrari and a Volkswagen.”

Finding solutions: natural air drying

James Dyck, crop systems and environment engineering specialist with Ontario’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), says it’s possible to use natural (unheated) air to dry corn. Dyck explains that natural air drying is gentle and does not require any specialized equipment other than a grain bin, a reasonably sized fan, and in some instances, a small heater.

In a resource published entitled, Natural Air Drying of Corn, Dyck lays out the steps for natural air drying. The drying speed and final moisture of the grain depend on the air temperature and humidity – there is a risk that drying may not finish before grain begins to spoil. This solution requires careful management and may take several weeks or more, depending on outdoor air conditions.