Vilsack floats plan to ease port congestion, restore disrupted shipping services

USDA
FILE - In this Thursday, July 12, 2018, file photo, the container ship Maersk Emerald is unloaded at the Port of Oakland, Calif. During the pandemic, ocean carriers have made fewer containers available for U.S. ag commodities, repeatedly changed return dates, and charged unjust fees as the ocean carriers short-circuited the usual pathways and rushed containers back to be exported empty.

The USDA is partnering with the Port of Oakland to set up a new 25-acre "pop-up" site to make it easier for agricultural companies to fill empty shipping containers with commodities.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says the partnership was forged due to fewer containers being made available for U.S. ag commodities, as ocean carriers have circumvented traditional marketing channels and rushed containers back to be exported empty and as a result, many of these carriers have suspended service to the Port of Oakland.

USDA is now taking action to reduce these shipping disruptions that have prevented U.S. agricultural products from reaching their markets.

“COVID-19 revealed vulnerabilities across our supply system, both at our ports and in the agricultural sector,”  Vilsack said. “As the economy has made an historic recovery, it has put additional strain on the supply chain."

Vilsack says the government is using creative approaches to improve port operations while elevating American-grown food and fiber.

“This creative partnership with USDA and the Port of Oakland will help American farmers and agricultural producers move their product to market while also making better use of empty containers that are causing congestion at the ports,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. “After we helped set up inland pop-up ports at the Port of Savannah, we witnessed significant improvements in the flow of goods, and we expect to see similarly positive results once this Oakland facility is open. We look forward to engaging with other ports on similar solutions to congestion.”

The site will provide space to prepare empty containers beginning in early March. The new site will also have a dedicated gate with the ability to pre-cool refrigerated shipping containers to receive perishable commodities, all while avoiding bottlenecks that would have resulted from entering the main area of the Port.

Pressuring Ocean Carriers

Buttigieg and Vilsack report that ocean carriers have made fewer containers available for U.S. agricultural commodities, repeatedly changed return dates, and charged unjust fees as the ocean carriers short-circuited the usual pathways and rushed containers back to be exported empty.

DOT and USDA called on the carriers to more fully utilize available terminal capacity on the West Coast. At least one carrier has since announced plans to resume previously suspended service to Oakland.

USDA has been actively developing options to alleviate market disruptions for agricultural producers and companies using the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) resources set-aside last fall, with a special focus on transportation challenges such as ports and trucking.

American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall says supply chain issues are a big concern for farmers and ranchers.

"The USDA's actions to ease congestion at several ports is an important step to ensure America’s farmers and ranchers have a reliable path for exporting the rice, beef, pork, fruits, vegetables, almonds and many other agricultural goods grown in the United States," Duvall said, adding that further steps must be taken to prevent carriers from sending empty containers out of U.S. ports, such as the passage and signing of the Ocean Shipping Reform Act.

"Port congestion is one piece of a larger puzzle and AFBF will continue working with industry, federal agencies and Congress to untangle the complicated web of supply chain issues facing farmers and ranchers," he said.

Colleen Kottke of the Wisconsin State Farmer contributed to this report