For the 2013-2014 grain year, Canada exported 40.1 million tonnes of grain, according to statistics from the Canadian Grain Commission. Most of that — 24.1 million tonnes was exported through the Pacific coast ports of Vancouver and Prince Rupert. St. Lawrence ports accounted for 6.2 million tonnes, Great Lake terminal elevators east of Thunder Bay (and excluding Prescott, Ont.) 2.7 million tonnes, Thunder Bay, 1.7 million, and Churchill 1.7 million. Another 4.8 million tonnes was exported from Prairie elevators.

Wheat was by far the biggest grain export at 17.3 million tonnes. Canola at 8.6 million tonnes was the second largest exported grain. And amber durum, a variety of wheat categories separately from other wheat, was third at 4.8 million tonnes.

Most of Canada’s grain exports flow through the Port of Vancouver. And 2014 was no exception. Port Metro Vancouver exported 23.17 million tonnes of grain, speciality crops and feed in the calendar year 2014, according to the port’s statistical overview for the year. That was 20 per cent more than the 19.34 million tonnes in 2013. Wheat exports increased 19 per cent and accounted for 9.07 million tonnes in 2014. Canola exports increased 31 per cent to 6.08 million tonnes. Exports of specialty crops from Vancouver only increased to two per cent in 2014 to 5.62 million tonnes. Vancouver exported 2.67 million tonnes of those speciality crops in containers, which was six per cent more than in 2013.

At Prince Rupert, grain shipments increased 25.7 per cent in the calendar year 2014 to 6.46 million tonnes compared with 5.14 million tonnes in 2013. About 69 per cent of 2014 grain volumes were wheat with canola making up about 27 per cent. Overall grain shipments had been up about 8.6 per cent in 2013 over 2012. However, most of that increase was in 32.7 per cent higher canola volumes with wheat rising less than one per cent in 2013.

Thunder Bay grain volumes soar

At Thunder Bay, grain volumes totalled 8.33 million tonnes in calendar 2014. That was the highest since 1997, when they surpassed 10 million tonnes. (The 8.3 million handled was far more than the 1.7 million tonnes exported because most of that grain was shipped to other ports, such as along the St. Lawrence River, before leaving the country.) The 2014 haul was 54 per cent higher than the 5.4 million tonnes in 2013. And that was after a slow start to the Seaway shipping season in April when year-to-date grain shipments tallied only 135,254 tonnes compared to 698,074 tonnes to start the 2013 season. Tim Heney, CEO of Thunder Bay Port Authority, said he expects 2015 to be another reasonably strong year for grain. “I don’t know if we’ll quite get to last year’s levels or not,” Mr. Heney said.”Time will tell. We did miss a month of service last year, though, due to the ice. So who knows?”

One factor that helped pushed grain volumes up was record steel imports from Europe to U.S. ports on the Great Lakes. That resulted in ships looking for cargo to take back across the Atlantic. “It’s an imbalanced trade to Europe, especially when you increase imports of steel,” Mr. Heney said. “Your choices become pick up grain in Thunder Bay or maybe go back empty.” Those ships will load up with the 23,000 tonnes maximum they can carry through the St. Lawrence Seaway and then top up at grain elevators in Quebec, he said. The majority of that grain will have arrived at the elevators by laker vessels. “It’s kind of an interesting system but it’s working quite well for them,” Mr. Heney said.

Following the changes last year at CWB, Mr. Heney didn’t know what would be in store for Thunder Bay. For decades, since the Seaway was established, the Wheat Board had allocated roughly the same amount of grain for Thunder Bay. “So I always wondered is that allocation going away or would it in natural markets grow bigger?” Mr. Heney said. “And it seems to be getting bigger.” He attributed that to the major grains companies — which have elevators at Thunder Bay and in Quebec — regarding the Seaway as a favourable route. “The railroads are another bit of a puzzle,” Mr. Heney said. “They seem to be favouring carrying grain only as far as Thunder Bay, in other words, not much winter rail.” He didn’t wish to say anything negative about the railways, though, “because it came out positive for us.” Mr. Heney noted that Thunder Bay has a quick turnaround time for rail cars, which enables the railways to move their unit cars quickly back to the grain fields.

Montreal also experiences surge

At the Port of Montreal, grain volumes also surged in 2014. Bulk marine grain figures for both inbound and outbound rose 51.76 per cent to 3.06 million tonnes, compared with 2.02 million tonnes in 2013. “It was quite congested really,” said Hani Matta, an economic analyst with Port of Montreal. “It was unusual. But this year is normal up to now. We haven’t had the influx that we had last year. But we’ll see how the year goes.”

Another 1.1 million tonnes of bulk grain arrived at or departed by rail. That was a 63.4 per cent rise over 2013. Almost all of the inbound grain would have come up the St. Lawrence Seaway and then shipped from there to other markets, said Mr. Matta. “A lot of railed grain comes in during the winter from December to March because the Seaway is closed,” Mr. Matta said. Port of Montreal also handled 987,662 tonnes of grain in containers in 2014. That was an increase of 37.02 per cent over 720,805 in 2013. Most of the grain carried in containers is specialized products like lentils, beans, and peas.