Updated information provided by USDA and other sources allows us to appreciate the current state of the main US ports that export agricultural products, and particularly, soybeans. We formulate for questions on this issue and try to answer them.
1) Which are the main US ports that export agricultural products?
The “Profile of top US Agricultural Port” report, released in April 2017 by AMS/USDA (Agricultural Marketing Service of the US Department of Agriculture), describes the 20 principal oceanic ports with most of the traffic of agricultural exports and imports in the US. This study gives detailed information about transported goods, maritime lines used, country of destination and origin, etc.
The report states that exports of agricultural products in bulk during 2015 totaled around 142 million MT, a number that is based on the following assumptions:
* Only computes bulk cargos, not containerized.
* Includes the following products: soybean, corn, wheat, grain in general, bread, meal, feed, soybean oil, corn oil, protein meals, meat, milk, poultry, cotton, rice, fruits and other agricultural products.
Table Number 1 shows that the New Orleans Port Region, located in the Gulf of Mexico, is the most important for US exports of agricultural products by waterway, since it dispatched 46% of the total. This represents around 65.8 million tons.
In second place, we find the port node of Kalama, which exports about 8.7 million tons. This port is located in the state of Washington, in the region known as the Pacific Northwest. In third place, we find the port of Houston, Texas, also along the Gulf of Mexico, with 6.4 milion tons. The port node of Los Angeles occupies fourth place, being located along the Pacific Ocean.
2) Which areas export most US soybeans?
As we can see in the attached map, there are 2 port areas through which most of US soybeans are exported; the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Northwest (PNW).
According to information provided by the Haute école de gestion (HEG) of Geneva, 60,1% of US soybean exports made in 2013 where dispatched from port terminals located in the Gulf of Mexico. In second place, the Pacific Northwest ports, which include the ports of Kalama, Virginia and Tacoma, represent 23.8% of total US soybean exports. Almost 9.2% of soybean exports leave the country by land, which in the map is represented by the “Interior” tag. Another 5% is dispatched through the Atlantic ports located on the East Coast, and 1.8% is exported through the Great Lakes Area.
In the US, producers tend to transport their production to elevators/stockpiles near production areas by trucks, which carry up to 30 MT each. Then grains are transferred from these stockpiles to barges or trains in order to be send to processing plants or exporters. The US has a geographical advantage in the Mississippi basin, a waterway system with an extension of over 10,000 km that drains near New Orleans. Transporting grains by barge is obviously cheaper than by train. The survey shows that about 70% of US agricultural produce is harvested in areas close to a watercourse, which allows for significant transport cost reduction. Barge trains are formed by about 40 to 50 barges, which are then propelled by a pusher craft. These convoys usually carry between 50,000 and 60,000 MT of soybean.
We estimate that about 30% of US soybean exports arrive to ports by train. These formations are composed by 100 to 120 wagons and can transport up to 10,000 MT. The railway branches unite export terminals with elevators near the soybean production areas.
The Northwest Pacific Ports have registered a large increase in soybean shippings in the past few years. This is a result of a significant rise in the volume of soybean harvested in the states of Nebraska, Minnesotta and the Dakotas. These states mostly export their produce through the port of Kalama, where they send their goods by train.
The report also indicates that the North Pacific Ports also have the advantage of being located much closer to the Asian markets (which represent 90% of US exports) than those in the Gulf of Mexico. For example, a shipment dispatched from New Orleans to the Qingdao port in China takes 30 days to arrive, whereas it would only take 15 days to complete the journey were it sent from the Pacific Northwest.
3) Which ports export most US soybeans?
The USDA report shows that the Region of New Orleans ships most of the US soybean exports, with 25.3 million MT in 2015. This represented 58% of the total US soybean exports for that year, which can be verified in Table 2. We must also highlight that 3 million MT of soybeans (or about 7% of total exports) are shipped in containers.
4) ¿What else can be said about the two main ports for soybean exports, New Orleans & Kalama?
The port complex located along the Gulf of Mexico has progressively become the most important for the shipping of grains, meals, oils and biodiesel from the US. Among the reasons for this are its accessibility to the Atlantic Ocean, its proximity to Europe, Africa and the Panama Channel, and finally, the fact that the Mississippi Basin flows into the New Orleans area.
This basin is a crucial waterway for US grain commerce as well as supply of international markets. A large volume of goods that includes soybeans, corn, wheat and their by-products flow into ports by barges.
The Mississippi river flows throughout the center of the US from north to south, going through the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana. It has an extension of 3,744 km and it is the second longest river in the US, only surpassed by the Missouri river. If we add the lower section of the Mississippi river to the Missouri River, the Mississippi-Missouri system reaches an extension of about 6,275 km, becoming the fourth largest waterway system in the world only behind the Amazon, Nile, and Yangtse waterways.
Let us remind some information about waterways located in our region for the sake of comparison. In South America, the “Paraguay-Paraná”, “Alto Paraná” and “Tiete-Paraná” waterways, as well as the connection between the city of Santa Fe and the Ocean through the Paraná River, form what is known as the “Cuencas del Paraná – Plata” fluvial integration system. This system has an extension of about 7,000 km along the territories of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Bolivia.
The Paraguay-Parana waterway constitutes one of the longest natural waterway system in the planet, with an extension of 3,422 km from Puerto Cáceres (Brazil) to Nueva Palmira (Uruguay). The Paraguay, Paraná and Uruguay rivers form it. It has a direct influence on an area of 720,000 sq km and indirect influence on a 3,500,000 sq km that holds a population of over 40 million.
According to USDA, the US Gulf of Mexico ports transport about 2 million bushels of grain to different destinations around the world. These ports offer easy access to the Caribbean Sea, the Atlantic Ocean and the Panama Channel. As USDA indicates, the ports located along the Mississippi river from Baton Rouge to Myrtle Grove are grouped into what is known as the “New Orleans Port Region”. These ports are in close proximity and give off the appearance of one single large port complex. An example of this scheme is the South Louisiana port hub, which extends 54 miles along the Mississippi river and handles more than 292 million short tons of cargo in 2015. The proximity of New Orleans’ ports reminds us of the Greater Rosario area ports, with 29 port terminals that extend 70 km along the coast of the Parana River, from Timbues to Arroyo Seco.
The Kalama port is located southwest of the state of Washington and northwest of the city of Portland, Oregon. Kalama is an important port for grain exports, since its berth holds a depth of 36 to 40 feet. It is located on the margin of the Columbia River. The industrial area of the Kalama port has an extension of 7 miles, and has two companies that operate grain elevators: Kalama Export Elevator and TEMCO.