Emo Feeds bringing grain to world through railway

Megan Walchuk

As news headlines speculate about food shortages and disrupted supply chains, one local business is ramping up to keep Canadian tables full.

Since February, Emo Feeds has been working with CN rail, to increase access to the world’s markets for local grain farmers. The farm supply business has secured access to track and a number of cars in the CN railyard, giving local farmers rail access for the first time.

It’s been a dream nearly five years in the making, said Emo Feeds co-owner John Sawatzky. When he and Johannes Gerber took over the business in 2015, they saw the existing Emo Feeds grain elevator as a way to eliminate the transportation bottleneck holding back so many local grain farmers. Since then, they’ve been working through the extensive regulatory and safety measures required, and have outfitted their trucking equipment to be able to load railcars.

Before rail access, farmers either contracted trucks, or maintained their own fleet, trucking grain to ports in Thunder Bay or Duluth. But trucking is an expensive means of transport, requiring some creative scheduling to make the most of a fleet, said Sawatzky. To keep trucking cost-effective, return trips need to be loads, which reduces flexibility, he said. As the owner of a fleet himself, he would often need to send an empty truck to pick up supplies for local farmers, which resulted in the freight costs eating the profits. “But that’s just what you do for your customers, to make sure they have what they need,” he said.

Rail, which uses considerably less staffing and fuel per ton, has opened a cost-effective and environmentally friendly option to local farmers. “They’re really excited about having the service in our district,” he said. “Growers couldn’t expand because of their fleet logisics. They could only grow their business so big. Now that part of the equation is gone. It lets them grow more.”

The rail system also allows farmers access to more parts of the world. “We can go anywhere the rail network goes,” he said. Instead of being limited to local ports, CN has been able to ship local grain anywhere in North America, and out of any port.

Quality has also improved, noted Sawatzky. Since beginning the service, he’s been able to bring in supplies by rail as well, including animal feed. The lower vibration of rail transit has resulted in feed pellets that are more intact. Fertilizers and other products have also come in by rail for local producers, and the network opens up access to corn and soy supplies, and new customers across the globe.

“There’s virtually no limits,” said Sawatzky, who feels rail access will leave a lasting impact on the future of agriculture in the region.

“The Rainy River District is a place that is forgotten, when it comes to agriculture,” he said. “We don’t even show up on the map. Cochrane is seen as Northern Ontario.”

That stigma has been caused by the lack of services in the past, he said. Young families looking to break into farming like the area, but the lack of services, which are more commonplace in other areas, drives them away, he said. “The lack of services has really halted development.”

He’s hoping that rail access will help put the Rainy River District on the agricultural map, and make the land more valuable for older residents hoping to sell and retire, and new families looking for a financially viable place to set up.

“This could be a prominent place for agricultural development,” said Sawatzky. “I’m really excited to be a part of it.”