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From The Prairies To Pakistan: Container Logistics

As proud Canadians, we love to call attention to our two beautiful, yet distinctly different coast lines, the majesty of the Canadian Rockies and the incredible sunsets and skies of our Prairies. Yes, Canada is geographically pleasing to the eye. If your business is transport and logistics, however, Canada is one ugly country, especially when sending containerized shipments from the Prairies to the markets we have worked so hard to develop around the world.

The only method to handle any significant volume of cargo out of Canada is ocean freight, whether bulk-loaded vessels of cereals and oilseeds or containerized cargo of more specialized items, such as lentils or other special crops. And this is where Canada becomes ugly, because no matter where the final destination of the cargo is or whether it leaves from Montreal, Halifax or Vancouver, for example, it has thousands of kilometres to travel over various terrain and often in extreme and changing weather.


How does 790 bu. (21.5 MT) or one full container load (one FCL) of your lentils travel from landlocked southern Saskatchewan to any port around the world?

If you have ever taken a commercial flight you know that you don’t just walk up to the ticket counters in Regina on Monday morning and ask to be ticketed to Karachi, Pakistan. Why not? For starters, there are no direct flights from Regina to Karachi; you need to plan a schedule based on connections, likely through Europe, and you also need to apply weeks in advance for a visitor’s visa to be allowed into Karachi. So what do you do? You reserve a seat on the variety of flights you will require, receive a confirmation number and with that begin to generate the other documents you require, such as accommodations, visa applications and so on.

Ocean freight is similar. A sale is made to a buyer based on cargo sailing from Canada by a certain period (a two-week period is common but the ranges vary). Like booking your airline ticket once we have concluded a sale, we make a request with the ocean carrier to reserve space on a vessel for the number of FCL required by this sale. Ocean carriers will reply with a “booking” or reservation number, essentially holding our “seats” or space.

Now the fun begins. As with your flight you are required to arrive at the airport well in advance of departure, to organize your boarding passes, ensure your luggage will be placed on the aircraft as well as to be through security checks on time so YOU can be placed on board. Arriving late, even if the airplane hasn’t left may result in a missed flight. Ocean carriers have the same policy.

With each booking there is a window in which shippers can pick up, load and return containers inland to the nearest container yard. Returning the containers even one hour late in Saskatchewan may (and often does) result in cargo missing the vessel, and unlike a flight to Toronto which happens several times daily, this delay will result in a week’s delay as most sailings are weekly or in some cases every two weeks.

It’s important for farmers to understand their role in this. Most processors are well organized and call for product well in advance of its required shipping date. Processors require your product on time, in condition or they may be in jeopardy of missing reservations. Like a late arrival at the airport could jeopardize your ability to arrive at your destination on time, late delivery of your grower contract can do the same. When your contracts are called, it is essential to deliver in a timely fashion.

While your truckloads of lentils are being delivered, the processor has made a schedule for its cleaning, packaging and placement in an ocean container. Using the booking numbers, containers are retrieved at the closest rail access point or container yard, delivered to the processing facility and returned on time (we hope) to satisfy the inland deadline of cutoff. Once returned, the container is then loaded onto a flatcar on the rail headed for the appropriate port of sailing to be loaded on its designated vessel as reserved.


It’s a common problem that there are not enough marine containers waiting on the Prairies to satisfy demand. In these cases the process is similar except the cargo loaded is placed not on ocean containers in Saskatchewan but on “inter-modal” trailers. These are the ones you have seen with the Canadian Tire logo on them. These are used only within land transit, rail or ground. They are loaded inland and returned on a schedule but are then sent to the appropriate coast where the cargo is then “transloaded” from these into ocean containers ready for sailing. The same timing and conditions apply; reservations are made for the ocean containers and need to be met.

Your lentils have already been through quite a ride, many kilometres of transit from your farm to a processing facility, then a bumpy ride through the facility and, finally, thousands of kilometres to the coast. Now they set sail on the voyage overseas; this can last anywhere from one week to 45 days or even longer prior to arrival at their port of destination. Once there they are subject to further inspections, more transit to warehouses and additional processing, packaging and distribution prior to reaching the consumer.

Of course this is just an outline of the process. There is a much more detailed process of scheduling, quality control and document preparation than I have discussed here. It is excruciating at times dealing with the weather and our logistically ugly geography, as well as fulfilling the meticulous details of documents to make the export legal and the transaction accurate and payment secure.

Jeff Jackson is export marketing manager with Wigmore Farms ( at Regina, Sask. Have you got a marketing strategy question? Send it to [email protected]or call 306-757-3005

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