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Published August 27, 2014, 05:30 PM

NDDA signs rail shipment deal with Port of Vancouver, Wash.

North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring on Aug. 27 signed a memorandum of understanding with the head of the Port of Vancouver. The action is intended to help move specialty agricultural products, but at least one shipper is concerned.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring on Aug. 27 signed a memorandum of understanding with the head of the Port of Vancouver. The action is intended to help move specialty agricultural products, but at least one shipper is concerned.

Goehring and Todd Coleman, CEO of the Port of Vancouver USA in Vancouver, Wash., announced and ceremonially signed an agreement at the Fargo Holiday Inn. The Port of Vancouver is the third-largest port in the Pacific Northwest, and is known for bulk shipments.

Coleman said the port has leased 50 newly refurbished boxcars from Louisiana that will be part of an initial 180-car fleet in the program. The cars are 50- to 60-foot-high capacity cars.

Coleman said the MOU is the only one his port has with any governmental department. Under the agreement, the Port of Vancouver would fill the refurbished boxcars with products such as ceramic fracking sand, pipe and lumber — the equivalent of about two unit trains — for delivery to Minot, then grain will be put in the cars to be hauled back to the Pacific Northwest.

At the Vancouver port, ag products would be transloaded into containers for placing on shipping vessels. By promoting the agricultural boxcar backhauls, the Port of Vancouver could get a better commitment of locomotive power from the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, Coleman said.

He said the arrangement is good for BNSF because it wouldn’t “have to spend the time to go find boxcars, pull them in, and move them around to different facilities.” It’s far more efficient for BNSF to have those products aggregated for loading and unloading in Minot or Vancouver, he added. Handling more specialty crops in this way might free up more locomotives and other resources for handling the high-volume crops in shuttles and unit trains, he said.

Support

The MOU requires Goehring’s department to support the communication and market development of the plan. The agreement expires on Aug. 31, 2015, but could be updated annually. It implies support but doesn’t specify any duties or obligations.

Goehring estimated that perhaps half of the 392 elevators in the state might use the backhaul plan. He said it would ship edible beans, pulse, flax, chickpeas and other crops.

Goehring said the arrangement could benefit some bulk corn, wheat and soybean producers in the northern part of the state who don’t have as much access to ethanol plants as farmers in the southern part of the state. Cost isn’t known, he said, but backhaul costs “generally are discounted.” He said shippers could have 12 to 14 days to aggregate grain to ship back west.

Reactions mixed

While officials of corn and soybean organizations gave general comments on the need for improved reliable grain shipping and thanked Goehring for his efforts, Robert B. Sinner, president of SB&B Foods of Casselton, N.D., had a different reaction. Goehring had named SB&B in the press conference as a potential beneficiary of the plan.

Sinner is a key player in the Midwest Shippers Association, which tackles specialty crop shipping issues. Sinner told Agweek his group hadn’t been consulted on the Port of Vancouver plan and only learned of it indirectly.

Sinner said his food-grade soybean customers in Japan and elsewhere want identity-preserved shipments. Those IP shipments must be loaded at the supplier’s facility into a sealed, steel shipping container, which is not opened until it reaches the destination.

The MOU with the Port of Vancouver “went against what we’re trying to do in this state with developing good intermodal container shipments in and out of North Dakota,” he said, adding that oil companies prefer fracking sand to be delivered directly to North Dakota by container shipments, which aligns nicely with specialty crop export needs.

The Port of North Dakota in Minot recently extended rail capacity to bring in full unit trains of oil-related shipping containers, which creates more sustainable opportunity for specialty crops, Sinner added.

“Agricultural trade today is driven by food safety issues,” Sinner said. “When you transload product at the port, who is responsible for product contamination? Who’s responsible for product damage? And who’s responsible for product liability?”

The port and transloader don’t want responsibility, so it goes back on the shipper.

“Bringing boxcars of products and transloading IP products onto boxcars is not of interest to us,” he said.

Goehring said not all specialty crops are shipped IP, but some customers in places such as Columbia, Vietnam and Korea look for containers anyway because they have to be moved inland.

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