FTerry Fulmer knows that old gravel road better than the back of his hand.
The wheels on his 1977 pickup have travelled that 40-kilometre stretch from his farm in southwestern Saskatchewan to his favourite grain terminal more than he can count.
“That’s just one of the dozens of backroads I’ve used… and I can tell you in detail, right down to the colour of the stones on the shoulder of the road, about each road or highway in the south,” Fulmer insisted.
One would be a fool to doubt the now-82-year-old retired grain farmer. Those roads he referred to were his livelihood, his path to business success. He could paint a detailed picture of how each road had its certain bumps, grooves or soft shoulders.
“I have few loves in this world, but I would have to admit that the highways in this province are one of them,” he said. “We rely on those roads, regardless which one and regardless what kind of shape they’re in, to get our products to where they need to be.”
Fulmer credited his near-40-year farming success to Saskatchewan roads.
The unique relationship between Saskatchewan agriculture and its highways and infrastructure network has been a constant for nearly 100 years. Technological breakthroughs have changed the way both go about their business, though the underlying premise is the same – roads and highways support the agriculture industry in getting products to market.
Rural municipalities rely heavily on the highway system for services like health care and education. And it has long been said that rural communities are the backbone to life in Saskatchewan.
“It’s a collaboration between a number of ministries,” noted Jonathan Greuel, executive director of policy in the Ministry of Agriculture. “When we’re talking about growth of business and competitiveness of our industry and manufacturers and our processors, we’re involved with the ministries of highways and the economy and government relations, too.
“There’s a lot of co-ordination and collaboration needed there,” he said. “Highways also works closely with tourism and health care. It’s a critical piece of infrastructure and it’s costly and there has to be that co-ordination across all of those ministries.”
While highways and rail lines are expensive and crucial pieces of infrastructure, agriculture has long been one of Saskatchewan’s most valuable assets.
Saskatchewan employs approximately 26,000 people who deal specifically with canola, according to ‘The Economic Impact of Canola on the Canadian Economy’.
Across the country, canola generates $26.7 billion in economic benefits a year. Saskatchewan is the leader at $12 billion. About 92,000 jobs and $3.9 billion in wages can now be traced back to the canola grown, processed and handled in Saskatchewan, according to this report.
And with close to 90 per cent of what we grow in Canada exported to international markets, there is a sustained expectation that products like canola and grain and lentils – all goods popular in Saskatchewan – will arrive at ports and be delivered in a timely fashion.
“The timeliness in getting in exports to market is absolutely critical,” Greuel said, pointing to the backlog in Saskatchewan grain on the rail lines from a few years ago. “Exporters have made sales, have made commitments and they weren’t able to get that product to the coast. That failure to deliver on those expectations really hurt Canada’s reputation in international markets.
“These companies are like everyone else. They’re working on inventories and need the product in place.”
Saskatchewan is home to 510 grain elevators, not including seed cleaning and feed mill facilities. For at least 20 years, Fulmer hauled his grain to a nearby terminal where he watched it transition into a rail car and head west, likely to Vancouver.
The province’s grain industry, with production starting at the farm level, is funneled from municipal roads to provincial highways networks to those elevators in various rural locations. Roads to these terminals require due care and attention to ensure an efficient route for heavy trucks hauling product to market.
“The only way to get our product to international buyers is by rail,” Greuel said. “We do have a lot of product that travels by truck into the U.S., but our grain handling and transportation system is designed to funnel that grain into the elevators and into the rail line as quickly as possible.”
It’s also the cheapest way, too.
Rural municipalities rely more on a solid network of roads and highways to shuttle their residents between Point A and Point B.
Whether it’s getting children to schools or patients to an appointment with a doctor, reliable roadways connecting towns and villages are vital to everyday life in rural Saskatchewan.
“When you live in the city like Regina, you come to expect that the major roads to drive every day are going to be in good working order, in good condition,” Fulmer explained. “And if they aren’t then there’s usually a little chaos with detours and that sort of thing.
“Well, imagine there only being one road in and out to get you where you needed to go. And your annual salary (as a farmer) is riding on that one road being drivable. That’s how much the rural folk need these good roads and highways. It’s vital… and I think (the government and the road builders) have done a good job in keeping everyone connected with roads.”