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Rogers Sugar strike: Supply disruptions prompt Winnipeg businesses to search for other sugar sources

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For 34 years, Winnipeg’s Tall Grass Prairie Bread Co. has taken pride in sourcing local ingredients for its delicious treats. But like many companies in western Canada, the bakery relies on Rogers Sugar refinery in B.C. for its sugar.

Exactly two months ago on Sept. 28, 138 workers at the sugar plant walked off the job due to labour disputes, prompting a sugar shortage and disturbing supply chains.

“During COVID, we’ve become used to supply issues, all of us have,” said Lyle Barkman, co-owner of Tall Grass Prairie Bread Co. “But this one was a little in our face because of the upcoming holiday season.”

“It does point out the vulnerability of supply chains and how we do have limited sources of supply,” said Barry Prentice, a supply chain management professor with the Asper School of Business at the University of Manitoba. “Therefore when a disruption occurs, we start to feel it.”

Dakota Family Foods, a local grocery store, says it is also in a pinch, but uses its retail independence as an advantage.

“We are allowed to pull from multiple wholesalers. By doing that, we have access to more sugar,” said owner and manager Scott Clement.

Supply chain experts say companies can turn to other suppliers in Ontario and Quebec, or even the U.S. to make up the shortfall of the sugar shortage.

“But that adds a whole other layer of problem because they may not have relationships with other suppliers or producers,” said Rick Reid, CEO of the Manitoba Institute of Supply Chain Canada. “There’s the cost of getting it there -- if you’re going into the states, the additional costs of passing an international border.”

It’s a price Tall Grass Prairie Bread Co. isn’t willing to pay, pushing the company to find other ways to bring in the sweet stuff.

“It’s been very eye-opening as to the variation in the prices of these products,” said Barkman.

Aside from a resolution in the strike, the bread company suggests bringing a sugar plant back to Manitoba to help subsidize costs and stay true to its local sourcing.

“We could sure use a beet factory here,” Barkman said.

According to Public and Private Workers of Canada Local 8 – the B.C.-based union representing the striking workers – a mediator has been brought in to help reach an agreement. However, supply chain experts say even if the dispute is resolved tomorrow, the sugar shortage will continue until suppliers can meet the demand of the customers and replenish the inventories impacted by the disruptions.

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