The first cargo ship of the season - the M.V. Ikan Suji - was loaded Tuesday at the Port of Churchill with 35,200 tonnes of No. 2 Canada western red spring wheat destined for Mexico.
It was the earliest start of the shipping season at the northern Manitoba deepwater port in 20 years.
Port officials hope it bodes well in its efforts to meet this year's grain-shipment target of 800,000 tonnes. If it gets there, it would be a record total.
"It was a good day," said Merv Tweed, president of OmniTrax Canada, the owners of the port and the Hudson Bay Railway. "Everything seemed to go off without a hitch. The prognosis for this year is very positive."
This year's ambitious targets is almost twice as much as the 10-year average of less than 500,000 tonnes.
"We have a plan, and if everything falls into place the way we think it should, we should be able to deliver on that number," said Tweed.
The early start is a good thing and an extended ice-free period at the end of the shipping season would also help. In 2013, the final ship of the season left the port Nov. 12, the latest ever.
This is the 85th year of the port's operation. It had an auspicious start with last year's controversial announcement OmniTrax intended to ship crude oil through the port and this spring's suspension of rail service because of permafrost damage to the tracks.
But industry and port officials are not deterred in their optimism.
The first ship out was carrying Richardson International wheat to customers in Mexico.
Tracey Shelton, a spokeswoman for the Winnipeg-based grain company, said Richardson International has a major program in place for shipments.
"We increased volumes through Churchill the last couple of years, and we intend to do so again this year," Shelton said. "The first ship was a wheat vessel and we have two more canola vessels lined up right away - both going to Mexico - and we have ships slated through the rest of the season."
She said there are always many variables in determining what to ship through which port, and the June rail-service suspension on the Hudson Bay Railway did not necessarily disrupt Richardson's plans.
"Churchill is a really viable port for us to ship to Latin America and South America - primarily Mexico and Brazil - as well as Europe," she said. "If we can get all these variables together then it become a good port for us to use to maximize our throughput capacity."
Traditionally, about 80 of Churchill's shipments are in September and October. Tweed said an early start this year means a better chance of increasing shipments from Canada's only deepwater port into the Arctic Ocean.
The heavy traffic out of Vancouver and Thunder Bay ports after last year's massive crop might also be a window of opportunity for Churchill. "If there are delays out of the Great Lakes or the West Coast, customers might note that and be more receptive to deliveries from an alternate route," said Tweed. "If they hear from others that we deliver on what we say it opens the door."
He said OmniTrax took calls from interested shippers last year, and the port will have seven shippers using it this year, up from five in 2013 when total tonnage was 636,000 tonnes.
Ideally, the port can cut down on transportation costs for grain companies that would otherwise have to ship more kilometres on rail to other ports.
Richardson's shipment this week is of wheat from northeastern Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
"Churchill is another option for us," Shelton said. "It just allows us to ship grain that much quicker to our customers."
OmniTrax had put its plans to ship crude oil through the port on hold. Tweed said the company will be issuing an update statement on that in the next couple of weeks.