Farmers Lose Out During Harvest With Portland Containers Service Gone, Northwest Public Radio, Sept. 8, 2015

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]By Conrad Wilson

Farmers in eastern Washington and Idaho are having a difficult time getting some of their crops to market. For years, many used the container ship service at the Port of Portland to get their lentils and chickpeas to countries like China, India and Peru. But a long running labor dispute drove container ship carriers from Portland last spring.

As Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Conrad Wilson reports, with harvest nearly complete, those farmers are now paying the price.

The container yard at the Port of Lewiston, Idaho looks forgotten. A tall crane next to the Clearwater River sits parked and unused.

Off in the distance, two orange metal shipping containers lie side-by-side, floating in a sea of asphalt.

“We’re looking across a fairly vacant container lot. Last year, there would’ve been probably 250 containers here.”

David Doeringsfeld is the port’s general manager. His runs the farthest inland port on the West Coast.

Farmers from North Dakota, Montana, Idaho and eastern Washington all depend on it to get their goods to market.

The main crop around here is wheat. That’s shipped by bulk cargo.

Until this last spring, the rest of the farmers’ crops were barged to Portland and loaded onto container ships.

But almost all of Portland’s container fleet left this spring after a long labor dispute between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the company that employs them.

Doeringsfeld says that’s had ripples all the way out here.

“When steamship lines quit calling that ended all container on barge service at the Port of Lewiston,” Doeringsfeld said.

And that’s where farmers are taking a hit.

They can’t grow wheat all the time, because it would eventually suck all the nutrients from the field. So every few years, farmers rotate in peas and lentils to inject nitrogen back into the soil.

“Peas and lentils are all shipped in 100 pound sacks that are palletized, shrink wrapped, put in containers and sent out. So unlike wheat … peas and lentils are moved in containers,” Doeringsfeld said.

“The Port of Portland was a very cost effective way to ship into the international markets,” Peter Klaiber, vice president of marketing for the USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council in Moscow, Idaho, said.

By using the barge system down the river, we were able to move a lot of tonnage at a low price, move the containers onto ocean going ships and get them out to the export markets that we serve.”

Klaiber said those peas and lentils are now shipping out of the Ports of Tacoma and Seattle – a little cheaper than Portland.

But the containers have to go by truck.

“That increases the costs significantly.”

About $1000 more than barging.

“Because we are operating within a global market, we simply can’t raise our prices to the buyers because they have alternatives. Suppliers in China, or Australia, or Russia, or France or wherever. So where does that additional cost get recorded? It means that the return to the farmer has to be less.”

This time of year harvest is well under way in the Palouse region along the Washington-Idaho border.

“We’re at the bottom of the ladder as far as passing on expense.”

Brian Silflow farms 2800 acres with his dad outside Kendrick, Idaho.

He’s steering his green John Deere combine as it combs the golden rolling hills. He’s harvesting chickpeas – which Silflow acknowledges will make him less money this year than they did last year because of higher shipping costs.

“As producers it’s a little tougher for us, because we don’t have as much margin to work with.”

A few miles away, Chad Heimgartner is getting ready to take his combine out for the day. Like most farmers around here, his crops are being trucked to Puget Sound. He wants dock workers and their company to work out the labor issues that led to the loss of container service.

“I don’t think they have any idea what they’re doing to us out here growing the crops. I think they’re just looking out for themselves. I think it’s pretty selfish on their part and it leaves a pretty bitter taste in everybody’s mouth out here.”

Farmers agree the long term fix is for container service to one day return to the Port of Portland. But for now, these farmers will have to adjust to smaller paychecks.

I’m Conrad Wilson in Lewiston, Idaho.

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