WINNIPEG, MANITOBA, CANADA — Western Canadian farmers' use of producer cars for transporting wheat was the second-highest in history in 2010-11, the result of growing awareness of their cost-saving benefits for farmers, the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) said on Aug. 19.

In the last crop year (which ended July 31), farmers loaded 12,784 producer cars, just below the record of 12,934 set two years ago, CWB said. Producer-car use has increased dramatically over the past 15 years as farmers continue to invest in their own grain-loading facilities and shortline railroads — creating options for themselves in the face of massive closures of Prairie elevators and railway branch lines over the past two decades.

"Farmers' ability to use producer cars means they have an alternative to driving long distances to grain-company elevators, while saving C$600 to C$1,600 per car in handling charges," said CWB board chair Allen Oberg, who farms near Forestburg, Alberta, Canada. Direct savings to Prairie farmers totaled nearly C$11 million in the last year. "The CWB has been committed to ensuring these options are available for all farmers."

Saskatchewan farmer Tim Coulter, president of the Producer Car Shippers of Canada, said that in light of the Canadian government's plans to dismantle the CWB single desk next August, he has serious concerns about the future of producer cars.

"Our fear is that farmers will soon lose this valuable benefit," said Coulter, a founding member of the Southern Rails Cooperative and the Briercrest Grain producer-car loading facility. "The government has given us no indication of how the Prairie producer-car system can possibly survive this change, nor have we been asked for our input.

"Producer cars work now because of the CWB. Grain companies have little interest in facilitating producer cars, since our cars are essentially in competition with their own services." This competition, he added, results in benefits for all farmers like higher trucking incentives and lower grain-handling charges in areas where producer-car options are available.

Producer cars are rail hopper cars that farmers can order to load themselves at a rail siding or producer-loading facility located closer to home than the nearest grain terminal. Most of the loading facilities and connecting shortline railroads are owned by farmers in cooperatives or joint ventures. There are more than 120 producer-car loading sites on the Prairies, as well as 14 shortlines.

The vast majority of producer cars are used for wheat or durum wheat as part of the CWB's overall export program, in collaboration with producer-car networks across the Prairies. Only 463 (about three per cent) were loaded with non-board grain last year.