Shipping Dysfunction Threatens Ag Exports to China

The pandemic has upended export shipping of Ag and other U.S. goods to key markets like China, creating a shortage of shipping containers and prompting exporters to ask the Biden Administration for help.

Export demand has soared since August, but more of it is inbound from China to the U.S., the Washington Post reports, prompting shippers’ refusing to wait in ports for containers to be reloaded before returning them to China.

“We’re going to see impacts throughout the whole supply chain, because those containers aren’t being waited on to be refilled with an agricultural commodity, to be exported. The container, itself, is higher value, and so now they’re just turning directly around to get the ships out quicker, and to get those containers back to Asia, to bring another shipment back in the ocean voyage,” according to American Farm Bureau’s Andrew Walmsley.

The Post reports the Port of Los Angeles processed some two-and-a-half times as many empty containers headed to China as full ones, leading to a shortage of trucking containers in the heartland.

But Walmsley says there is a silver lining for bulk grains, soybeans and other ag goods.

“The vast majority travels by inland waterway system, through our barges or through rail, up through the Pacific Northwest, where it is then loaded onto bulk container vessels, not container vessels, if that makes sense. So, you’re still seeing our container ships, as far as bulk commodity grains, and different things like that, being able to move,” says Walmsley.

Walmsley says more niche products like hay, horticultural and other ag goods, may be bottled up or unable to reach the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

AFBF and other ag groups wrote Biden officials this month to complain about “supply chain dysfunction.” The groups back an ongoing probe of shippers’ actions by the Federal Maritime Commission, while the industry’s World Shipping Council argues shippers are ‘doing their best’ under extreme conditions.