A Prince Edward County farmer who grows non-genetically modified soybeans described his struggles of getting his produce to market to the committee of the whole Thursday.
And while it’s unclear if Big Island grain and oilseeds producer Russell Wager will be able to haul his Identity Preserved soybeans to an exporter in Toronto after Feb. 1, 2019, there are council members around the horseshoe that want to stand up and support agriculture in Prince Edward County.
Whether they will be able to do so for farmers that are impacted by reduced load restrictions on Prince Edward County roadways remains to be seen.
The committee received an interim report from commissioner of engineering, development and works Robert McAuley and asked staff to bring back an interim amendment to bylaw 2829-2011 as well as legal opinion in time for the Nov. 27 council meeting.
The amendment would allow a reduced load exemption in 2019 for farm-related exports in recognition for the need to ship farm, food and feed products sensitive to perishability or market timing demands and is subject to legal opinion from the County’s solicitor.
Wager presented his plight to the Committee by way of deputation on Thursday, explaining he grows, cleans and bags a version of a higher value, non-GM soybean that’s desired in Asian markets.
The 100-lb bags of soybeans are then stacked and loaded at Wager Farms into shipping containers.
From there, the containers are trucked to Toronto, put on rail cars destined for Vancouver and eventually transhipped to Asia.
The trouble for Wager and any other Prince Edward County grower that might grow this value-added crop is that farmers are at the mercy of the global markets and the exporting agency.
“They tell us when they want a load, we don’t tell them,” Wager explained.
And, should that request for delivery come after Feb. 1, 2019, Wager Farms have a serious issue on their hands as the County has moved to an early half-load season for heavy trucks and tractor trailers.
“The problem is we can’t send a half-loaded shipping container to Toronto. They won’t accept it.” Wager explained. “It’s a real problem for us.”
The beans, which satisfy overseas GM-free purity demands from food manufacturers that produce items like tofu and miso, won’t withstand rising temperatures due to potential meal moth infestations and Wager explained the beans are essentially perishable.
“We have to get the beans out of our facility prior to spring,” Wager said.
In tabling the motion to grant an exemption to those farmers shipping perishable goods in February and March when the County has reduced load restrictions as a measure to protect its road network, councillor Janice Maynard explained the issue had been under discussion for sometime and, with the half load season approaching, inactivity in the issue simply wouldn’t be an option any longer.
Under Ontario’s Highway Traffic Act, the municipality can issue exemptions for certain items and materials during half load season including potable water, septage and heating fuel.
Based on input from Wager and comments made from the agriculture sector, Maynard explained the types of infrequent shipments coupled with the needs to react to global market demands put this sector alongside other exempted services in terms of necessity.
Maynard’s amendment came despite the fact staff issued an interim report with no firm direction contained within.
McAuley explained to committee members that materials hadn’t been prepared and the department didn’t yet have a definitive direction at this time but warned against pushing a bylaw that responded to a single sector.
“I would strongly caution against the councillor’s recommendation,” McAuley said. “It borders on being illegal and not consistent with the (HTA) in that it doesn’t conform to the permitted materials that exemptions can be granted for such as essential services and farm commodities are not an essential service. We are risking litigation and if we only focus on one sector, we expose ourselves to other sectors for the same risk or accused of bonusing a sector.”
McAuley added council did not have the appropriate information to make a decision and there were alternatives available such as improving haul routes to avoid the imposition of half loads all together.
“We can take a measured amount of risk to allow haulage on certain roads understanding what it means but we don’t have all the data assembled to prepare that for you,” McAuley said. “We are not in position to adopt a bylaw to do this.”
The commissioner implored those gathered around the horseshoe on Thursday to await further information, adding an alternative strategy was formulating whereby such an exemption would not be necessary.
McAuley said staff may be prepared indicate certain roads without weight restrictions to assist certain farmer in certain areas and such a report could be ready as soon as the first quarter of 2019.
As to why municipality has an earlier half load season than other neighbouring municipalities, the answer lies back in 2009 when an early January thaw caused the council of the day to institute an earlier half load season that actually bucks the trend of March 1 start dates when compared to Lennox and Addington, Northumberland and Hastings Counties.
March 1 start dates for half-load season are practice in Southwestern Ontario as well where grain and oilseed production is a vitally important and valued pillar of local economies.
In fact, Chatham-Kent appears to be proactive on the matter of half loads and potential early thaws that could bring about damage to roads.
Typically instituting half load restrictions on March 1 like the majority of the other municipalities in Southern Ontario, in 2017 staff in that area were able to ascertain through weather forecasts that spring was coming early and the local government passed a temporary bylaw to move the start of half load season to Feb. 22 of that year.
During discussion councillor Treat Hull said there was a real economic development problem Prince Edward County needs to be concerned about and it’s how producers of specialty products-farm produce and other goods and materials- are restricted in their ability access global markets by the current roads policy.
“However justified (the policy) is- we need to find a way to solve this problem,” Hull said “We need to get this fixed one way or another.”
Hull interpreted a section of HTA legislation cited in McAuley’s report that indicated municipalities could grant particular exemptions without bonusing when considering the load itself, explaining that Wager Farms’ case, was a loaded shipping container.
“You could make an argument that a sealed container is not divisible, and their economic output is a loaded shipping container, you can ship one or none but you cannot a half a one,” Hull countered
McAuley disagreed with Hull’s understanding with portion of the HTA and said that the loads could go into smaller containers although Wager explained during his deputation that the containers were a standard size designed for transhipment and the exporters wouldn’t accept a half-loaded shipping container.
Councillor David Harrison was more blunt on the matter and said the time for municipal body to act was now.
“This isn’t something to study and look at and examine. This is a now problem and it should be dealt with as quickly as possible. It’s more than just a hardship because if they can’t meet deadlines in a world market situation then they are taken out of the market completely,” Harrison said. “You have to deliver at a point in time. If you are going to run half loads, you probably aren’t going to make any money and this is putting the sector at risk now.”
As his one of his constituents from Sophiasburgh, Bill Roberts has spoken with Wager numerous times regarding the matter and the councillor didn’t mince his words directed at McAuley.
“This council had been told an answer would be coming forward in time for this operating season and what we have before us now is a punt,” Roberts said of the interim report. “Either we were being mislead or staff doesn’t have an understanding on the seriousness of this issue. Neither is satisfactory”
Mayor Robert Quaiff understood the farmer’s plight but cautioned that such an exemption, even a temporary one, would draw inquiries of concern from other sectors that are impacted by half load season.
Quaiff said the incoming council could expect to hear from concrete batch producers who wouldn’t be able to bid on jobs in certain areas.
He recalled a local cement company that wanted to bid on the Wellings of Picton project but couldn’t due to load restrictions on county roads.
The contract ended up going to a Belleville firm that was able to use the 401 and Highway 49 which, along with Highway 33 and portions of County Rd. 1, don’t have load restrictions.
McAuley said the County has created a decentralized industrial base but does not have the road network to support a decentralized industrial base.
“The only solution is to look at the roads we are willing to risk and the roads we are able to improve and work on those roads to support the economic base. If we let those roads drive, and the proposed bylaw is the floodgate, we will be spending far more on getting these roads back up to shape. I think to open up the the roads to the agriculture sector is the thin edge of the wedge and it would be the downfall of our road network,” he added.
A legal opinion and a potential bylaw amendment is expected to come before council at Tuesday night’s council meeting.