News, Pulse Beat Individual Articles

We Grow it, They Move it: The Marvel of Supply Chain Logistics

Toban Dyck, Director of Communications, MPSG

THE PORT OF Vancouver is the largest export port and the third-largest overall in North America. It is a marvel of innovation, human potential and global relationships.

It’s mind-bending to fathom a container train full of Manitoba crops cutting through the Rocky Mountains and snaking its way through the dense and congested heart of Vancouver in order to arrive at either the north shore or south shore of the port, either destination a tightly wound sliver of tracks, roads, bridges, crossings and shipping terminals situated between high-end housing and the water.

A carload of your soybeans has likely stopped traffic in Vancouver, either frustrating commuter traffic or sparking the curiosity of someone who may not have any clue about that train’s connect to the prairie provinces.

On Sept. 27, 2019, a handful of writers attending the Canadian Farm Writers’ Federation conference in New Westminster, B.C., toured the Alliance Grain Terminal (AGT) situated along the 300 kilometres of shoreline occupied by the Port of Vancouver.


It has two deep-water loading berths and is now capable of loading an entire Panamax without needing to spin it around. This is an efficiency that has made a significant impact on the terminal’s ability to move product through its facility and off to market. More than 3.5-million metric tonnes of product moves through AGT, annually.

Inside the terminal itself is room upon room of specialized employees monitoring and directing what needs to be a well-oiled process. It wasn’t discussed, but a hiccup at any point from rail to ship would have cascading and stressful consequences. Every employee I saw sitting at a desk had multiple monitors.

A sample from every load of product entering the terminal goes to AGT for logging, but one also travels directly to the Canadian Grain Commission (CGC), where it’s inspected and archived.

The accountability measures taken at these port terminals is something I knew little about — CGC inspects the grain, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency inspects the ships themselves, looking for bugs, infrastructure imperfections or anything else that could affect a shipment’s quality and/or jeopardize its approval on the receiving end.

The goal of any well-functioning terminal is to move product through its guts as fast as possible. Considering the rate it receives grain and the rate in which that grain leaves on a vessel, AGT has enough bulk storage for two and a half days. It can process up to 2,000 tonnes of product per hour, 900 railcars per week and it is hoping to increase its 3.5 million tonnes annual capacity in the near future — all while continuing its 100 percent traceability mandate.

It was a lot to process and my camera’s SD card was running out of room. According to our itinerary, we were to have lunch on a boat. Our tour guides called it a yacht, but c’mon, a yacht to me, is a term reserved for the rich and famous. Being on a boat with food service and a bar was in and of itself exciting enough for my prairie-dwelling colleagues and me. But there was more. We were getting a tour of the Port of Vancouver — a bucket-list item for me. And something that would help place AGT in context. Many of the big grain companies have terminals in Vancouver, after all.

The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority is a federal entity that oversees the port’s operations and uses the money it receives from the 28 major terminals operating on its lands to upgrade infrastructure and advance Canada’s trade interests overseas.

It moves about 145 million tonnes of product per year. It represents more than 115,000 jobs and is the conduit through which $200-billion of trade occurs annually. Its vision is, “To be the world’s most sustainable port.”

It’s a busy place. Our small tour vessel needed to remain vigilant. Our captain was, no doubt, accustomed to navigating the port’s bustling waters, but I, a Manitoban, was struck at a deep level at the scale of things.

The terminals that dock and fill those ships are even more massive and the entire value chain that feeds it, the veins of which flow through our continent, is as complex as it is vital.

We slowly trolled past a container vessel. From my perspective, it seemed as though there were tens of thousands of containers aboard. It was huge. This is the world we live in. We order things, be it wheat, canola, soybeans, beans, meat or t-shirts from another country, and they have to get here somehow. Ports and transportation infrastructure, in general, have become such a highly-evolved, yet rarely thought about, feature of modern life.

It churns in the background to service consumers and us farmers. It employs the services of smart, specialized people who are not intimidated by the scope of their responsibility, nor paralyzed by the scaled-up consequence of failure.

This point was galvanized recently during the annual Fields on Wheels Conference, an event that brings together industry professionals (such as executives from CN and CP and the ports) to tackle issues related to the grain supply chain. This year’s theme was logistics and value-added processing of field crops.

Dr. Sylvain Cherlebois, colloquially known as the Food Professor, spoke about the rise of fake meat. He related his take on veganism and people’s changing diets back to what’s happening in the ag world around proteins.

Phrases such as plant-based proteins and animal-based proteins are finding their way into the public lexicon. And that’s really quite something. Linguistically, I would have never thought such terminology would strike a chord with the average consumer.

“What’s happening with proteins is fantastic, said Charlebois. “Everybody has unique dietary needs and that needs to be recognized.”

Charlebois also praised Manitoba for what it is doing on the protein front, urging everyone in the audience to get the Manitoba story of Roquette, Merit Functional Foods, sustainable hydroelectricity and great transportation infrastructure out there to attract further investments.

Supply chain management professor Dr. Barry Prentice agreed. “Where the plants get built, that’s where the industry stays,” he said.

The conversation then went from processing and proteins to a more explicit conversation about transportation with a panel featuring CP, Parrish & Heimbecker and the Hamilton-Oshawa Port Authority.

Twenty years ago, about 50-million tonnes moved off the prairies. For the last two years, that number increased to 80-million and by 2030, panel moderator and Quorum President Mark Hemmes predicts the prairies will produce more than 100-million tonnes of grain. “We’re going to have to look at things differently,” he said of the increased capacity and the associated transportation demands.

Joan Hardy, Vice-president of sales and marketing for CP, spoke about the rail company’s increasing capacity and commitment to handling prairie grain.

“Grain represents 22 percent of CP’s business,” she said. “Two-thirds of the grain comes from Canada and one-third from the U.S.” Eighty percent of the grain CP transports is destined for Vancouver, according to Hardy, who said, “CP is investing in larger sidings, longer yard tracks and increased locomotive capacity.”

Rail companies, such as CP, have, like the ports they service, invested heavily in finding efficiencies. Hardy said her company now has 120 locomotives in storage as surge capacity and they’ve implemented technology that allows them to monitor the temperature of wheels, which has allowed them to perform preemptive maintenance without disruptions.

What became clear from the Port of Vancouver tour and the Fields on Wheels conference was that when our soybeans and pulses enter the value chain, either via an elevator or processing facility, they are in good hands.

Agricultural transportation systems, such as our ports and rail, need to be held accountable. That goes without saying. But as farmers, we can rest assured that there is a strong determination along the value chain to remain a marvel of innovation and human potential.

There are more ports in Canada than Vancouver’s; just as there are more rail companies than CP. All of these companies are unique and service the ag industry differently. Traceability and transparency are becoming more and more common. Check out their websites. See where your product is going.