On Wednesday, I made a quick trip to Southwest Grain’s Boyle Terminal between Taylor and Gladstone to take a photo of Delane Thom, the cooperative’s manager. He had been interviewed for a national story by Reuters titled “Grain trains scarce on the Plains,” that we ran Thursday on our front page.
I spent 15 minutes chatting with Thom about the issues facing elevators throughout North Dakota, particularly those out west in the Oil Patch areas. I came away with an even better understanding of what people like those in Thom’s position are facing as they head into another busy season, trying to appease producers tired of hearing that an elevator with millions of bushels of space has no room and then begging BNSF Railway to send a few more trains their way to help free up space, only to watch a train hauling 110 cars full of oil roll east past the facility.
So much attention is being paid to those train cars carrying Bakken oil and its volatility that most forget about the issues facing local grain cooperatives throughout the region.
“All you have to do is look out the window to see all the tanker trains going by taking up track space,” Thom told the Reuters reporter during an interview a couple weeks ago.
Though he said the grain cars are gradually rolling in, they’re still few and far between. At times, Thom said, he’ll sit in his office and count the number of oil and coal trains that go through between grain trains. Thom told Reuters he’s still waiting on trains that were supposed to come through in February and March. It’s getting better, Thom said Wednesday, but slowly.
Despite a late start planting this year’s crop — an issue farmers throughout the state are still struggling with — signs are starting to point to a potentially good growing season. Even in difficult years, elevators like the Boyle Terminal can get backed up if they don’t get enough grain cars at the right times.
This is just beginning to become an issue. As oil production continues to increase in western North Dakota and crop production rates continue to improve, the situation will only become more dire. Thom believes the troubles they’re having now is nothing compared to how crazy the rail will be late in the summer when oil production is at its peak and farmers are bringing their harvests to market.
BNSF has said it’s committed to improving its agriculture presence on western North Dakota’s rails and is adding employees in an effort to make that happen and trim delay lengths. But BNSF can add all the employees it wants — there’s still only so much railroad to go around.
North Dakota leaders are doing their part, stepping in and putting some pressure on BNSF to try and make something happen for the cooperatives and producers. But they can’t forget about it. This problem isn’t going to go away. It’ll only get worse.
Plus, sometimes we all need to be reminded that agriculture is still more important to this state than oil, regardless of what makes the headlines.