A new service that starts this week should give farmers from Idaho, Montana and eastern Washington some relief. Since the Port of Portland lost its container service eight months ago, these farmers have been forced to truck their crops to Puget Sound ports, paying about twice as much in transportation costs.
“On a cold winter’s day in Lewiston, Idaho, we’re happy to report that container on barge service has resumed at the Port of Lewiston," said David Doeringsfeld, the general manager of the farthest inland port along the West Coast. That means farmers will once again be able to use the Snake and Columbia rivers to get their goods to market.
For years, farmers in the inland Northwest have shipped peas and lentils using large metal shipping containers. Crops were loaded onto barges at the Port of Lewiston, sent down river to Portland and then loaded onto container ships bound for countries like Peru, India and China. Legumes serve as a rotation crop to soft, white wheat. They make up about a third of what farmers around the region grow, most of which is exported.
The long-established shipping pattern changed this spring, when two carriers, Hanjin and Hapag-Lloyd, left the Port of Portland after a long-running labor dispute.
“Container-on-barge service has been suspended since back in April of this year, when container-steamship-line service was suspended at the Port of Portland," Doeringsfeld said.
Getting crops from eastern Washington and Idaho overseas became a major challenge for farmers.
“All of those upriver shippers were left without choices," said Bill Wyatt, the executive director at the Port of Portland. Many started shipping crops through the ports of Seattle and Tacoma instead of using the Columbia River.
"They've had to try, for the most part, to arrange trucking, which from Lewiston to Tacoma or Seattle is really, really expensive. It's so expensive that the trucking itself may actually exceed the value of the cargo in the container," Wyatt said. "When it comes by barge, that is less expensive than coming by truck."
Trucking a container from Lewiston to Seattle can cost close to $2,000.
The Port of Portland helped negotiate a new service that will take containers by barge from Lewiston to Boardman, Oregon, every other week. From there the containers will be loaded onto trains and sent to the ports of Tacoma or Seattle.
Shipping by barge through Boardman will save about $500 per container, said Doeringsfeld.
While that's still not as affordable as shipping to Portland, he said, it is less expensive than trucking, and arguably more reliable.
"Customers, right now, have been struggling since back in April, in just trying to get their cargo to Seattle and Tacoma," Doeringsfeld said.
That's in part because there haven't been enough trucks to meet the demand, he said. Also, timing global shipping schedules from 300 miles away adds a challenge.
"A lot of the steamship lines, you have to deliver your containers within a three- to five-day window," Doeringsfeld said. "So if you're all the way over here in Lewiston, Idaho trying to get 20 containers and get them delivered over the narrow window, it becomes very difficult."
Farmers in eastern Washington and Idaho are still taking in the news, but so far agree it's a step in the right direction.
"It's not going to take the place of the container shipping that was going to Portland when it was working well, but it is going to take some of the load," said Pete Klaiber, vice president of marketing for the USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council, based in Moscow, Idaho.
The ultimate fix will be for container ship service to one day return to the Port of Portland, Klaiber said.
The first barge will ship from Lewiston later this week carrying just 18 containers. In the coming months, port managers hope that number grows significantly and eventually leads to weekly service.