Land-locked Saskatchewan — thousands of kilometres from the nearest seaport — is probably the last place you’d expect to find a major conference on container trade.

But the province is also the source of about 15 per cent of the goods shipped out of West Coast ports and, as such, has a large stake in the efficient movement of commodities.

That was the thinking behind the Leaders Strategic Forum on Western Canada’s Container Trade, a two-day conference that attracted close to 150 delegates in Regina this week.

Sponsored by the Regina Regional Economic Development Authority (RREDA), Saskatchewan Trade and Export Partnership (STEP) and other industry organizations, the conference brought key players in the industry to meet with local business leaders.

“One of our major exporting segments was the specialty crops (producers),” said Larry Hiles, president and CEO of RREDA. “They were challenged with: ‘How do we find containers to get our products to our customers. If we can’t get our products to our customers, we don’t exist’.”

Another major problem was the month-long strike by container truck drivers at the Port of Vancouver last summer which resulted in lost sales for Saskatchewan exporters of pulse crops.

Hiles said the problems experienced by Saskatchewan shippers are symptomatic of broader issues affecting the entire industry.

“We need to understand how does the system work, where are the bottlenecks, the issues, the challenges and the opportunities. We’re seeing all of those coming out of these discussions.”

David Watson, president of Orient Overseas Container Line (OOCL) in Canada, told delegates Thursday the outlook for world container trade is “reasonably well balanced” between supply and demand.

Watson said world container growth was just under 11 per cent in 2005 and expected to show “pretty healthy growth” this year.

Watson added the Canadian container industry is looking at “tripling of capacity” over the next few years.

“It becomes a national issue for Canada to make sure that we’re able to handle the growth patterns in a very orderly, well-planned and strategic manner.”

David Fung of ACDEG Group said shipping commodities by container not only reduces the cost of handling, but encourages value-added processing.

“What we are trying to do is get the supply chain to work more efficiently. If we can do that, not only are we talking moving grain commodities … container traffic will allow us to ship specialty grains, even hay, beans. All of these things are value-added.”

Murad Al-Katib of Saskcan Pulse Trading said the shortage of containers is due to the large amount of trade from east to west, and much smaller flows west to east.

“If that environment changes, shipping lines will be looking for cargo to backhaul containers to Asia. Saskatchewan has volumes of cargo that can be shipped in containers.

“We have to position ourselves to take advantage of that in the future.”

Dale Botting, president and CEO of STEP, said Saskatchewan exporters need to find the most efficient method of getting products to customers.

“I’m very interested in containerization because I do believe that is the future for increased exports of our goods and services,” Botting said.