The ongoing strike at Seaspan Marine, which provides tug and barge services, is having a major impact on Vancouver Island’s animal food supply, according to Dennis Comeau.
Comeau is the general manager of Duncan-based Top Shelf Feeds, which specializes in farm, livestock, and pet supplies and operates the last commercial feed mill on the Island in Duncan.
He said the company has already faced numerous challenges in its 49-year history; including rail strikes, avian influenza, ferry strikes, rail blockades, the COVID-19 pandemic, the cancellation of the Island’s rail service and a shrinking market with large-scale farms due to lack of processing plants on the Island.
Comeau said the company has now been forced to also contend with the ongoing Seaspan strike which has seen rail service via barge to the Wellcox yard in Nanaimo halted, so Top Shelf Feeds now has to truck all its raw grain from Alberta and the Lower Mainland at twice the freight costs compared to rail.
“The lack of carriers is causing a run-out of certain commodities on the Island,” Comeau said.
“There is also no back-haul for these trucks. We’ve had 14 trucks deliver to the mill this week so far, and all headed back to the ferry empty.”
Top Shelf Feeds services approximately 141 commercial-scale farms on the Island with bulk-feed deliveries, and also supplies its four retail stores that are located from Langford to Powell River.
Comeau said the company currently hauls canola meal, soya meal, corn, wheat, barley, peas, corn distillers, beet pulp, dehydrated alfalfa pellets and a few other commodities to its mill for processing finished feeds.
He said that between 40 and 50 per cent of the company’s feed-producing customers that serve local markets are not currently being serviced by other feed mills from the Lower Mainland.
Comeau said other companies have also been affected by the labour dispute at Seaspan.
“Paper Excellence and Nanaimo’s Harmac mill have recently chartered a barge to service their operations,” he said.
“Harmac has the barge that can handle our traffic to Wellcox yard, but legalities within their union will not allow them to service other customers.”
Comeau said Top Shelf Feeds has reached out to provincial Agricultural Minister Lana Popham for help with the issue, and her office passed the matter over to the Ministry of Transportation, and then it went to Transport Canada who had a discussion with Harmac regarding offering assistance to Top Shelf Feeds.
“I spoke to Transport Canada on Sept. 28 and they are somewhat confused with their role in all of this,” he said.
“They said this is an agriculture issue, not transportation issue.”
Comeau said Top Shelf Feeds and local food producers are not in a position to hand the extra costs related to the Seaspan strike on to consumers because they have already been hit with significant cost increases as commodity prices have risen to an all-time high.
“Put it this way, if feed prices go up anymore, we will be left with very little business on Vancouver Island and these farms and suppliers, who are key producers for our food chain, will be shut down for good,” he said.