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BNSF to focus on hauling fertilizer

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D.

The largest railroad company serving North Dakota will devote unit trains and assign crews to quickly deliver fertilizer for the spring planting season, Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said Monday morning.

Hoeven spoke with Matt Rose, BNSF executive chairman, over the weekend “to urge the railroad to do everything it can to ensure timely delivery of fertilizer for spring planting,” according to a news release from Hoeven’s office. Farmers have been dealing with months-long delays for rail cars, as more trains are being used to move crude oil out of the Bakken oil region. BNSF has also blamed delays on a harsh winter.

Hoeven said BNSF will assign unit trains — trains dedicated to a single commodity — to move fertilizer to customers more quickly. That will allow cars to arrive at their destinations without being uncoupled and reassigned beforehand, he said.

The senator added that BNSF will assign more crews to move the additional cars, and work with customers to load and unload cars quickly.

“Getting seed and fertilizer into the ground at the right time is critical to a good harvest,” he said.

Tom Lilja, executive director of the North Dakota Corn Growers Association, said the increase in oil being pushed to the tracks is one concern for farmers. But he said a planting delay in the south may affect North Dakota as well.

“Typically, the fertilizer will flow as they’re using it in the south and then it will end up here in the spring,” he said. “There is a big logistical challenge this spring because everybody’s late and it will all be needed at the same time.”

Brian Schanilec, president of Forest River (N.D.) Bean Co., said the fertilizer news was encouraging, depending on the results. But he noted that farmers are still having trouble getting their commodities to market. Schanilec testified before federal railroad regulators last week, and said he’s been in contact with Hoeven’s office and the office of Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.

North Dakota Farmers Union President Mark Watne said he was cautiously optimistic about the news.

“We do rely on timely shipments,” he said. “The bigger challenge, from my perspective, is that there’s only so many trains that can go down the rails at the same time.”

In a news release, BNSF cited the “shortness of the season and the necessity of timely delivery in order to safeguard that producers can get this year’s crops planted with the proper plant nutrients” as reasons it was undertaking measures to ensure speedy fertilizer delivery.

“BNSF understands the importance of ensuring the fluidity of the supply chain during this critical period,” the company said. “All of our operating teams are focused on and dedicated to providing the level of service our customers expect and we are committing the resources required to accomplish this effort.”

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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