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Diversifying Soybean Shipping Options

By Dusty Sonnenberg, CCA, Field Leader, a project of the Ohio Soybean Council and Soybean Check-off

On Sunday, Oct. 22, 360 members of the UNIFOR union went on strike at the thirteen Canadian locks along the St. Lawrence Seaway rendering the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence Seaway closed for international exports and imports. UNIFOR is Canada’s largest private sector union. 

The St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation and UNIFOR announced it reached a tentative agreement on Sunday, Oct. 29, ending a week-long strike and reopening the St. Lawrence Seaway for imports and exports. Annually 760,000 metric tons of soybeans are exported via the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence Seaway.

“We are pleased the strike was short-lived. Supply chains are a two-way street. Those who provide and operate supply chain options — like the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence Seaway — request and expect predictability and reliability from shippers regarding the expected usage of the supply chain option,” said Mike Steenhoek, Executive Director of the Soy Transportation Coalition. “On the other hand, shippers, including agricultural exporters, rightfully expect the supply chain to be a predictable and reliable option if they are expected to utilize it. Whenever a strike or slowdown occurs, that predictability and reliability are called into question. During this time of supply chain challenges and uncertainty, we are pleased the two parties arrived at an agreement so that the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence Seaway can be a viable option for the U.S. soybean industry to meet the needs of our international customers.

“We export very little via the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence Seaway (approximately 1%) compared to other export regions such as the Mississippi Gulf (55%) or the Pacific Northwest (25%), but we believe it is a supply chain option that can and should be a more viable option for U.S. soybean farmers. A number of the leading soybean-producing states are located adjacent to the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence Seaway, including Ohio.”

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket is a phrase that applies to supply chains and shipping just like it does to agriculture and the importance of diversification. 

“One thing that the pandemic taught us is that when you concentrate all of your volume via one or a handful of supply chain options, you are really exposed if something goes wrong at one of those locations,” Steenhoek said. “We have had weather induced events and low water levels on the Mississippi River, and there have been threats of labor disputes in the rail industry in the past year. When you have all your eggs in one basket or two or three baskets, you are really susceptible to significant disruptions. It is better to diversify your supply chain. We contend that the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence Seaway can and should be more viable to American agriculture and the soybean industry. If we can increase the amount of soy that leaves through the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence Seaway, the soybean industry is going to be better positioned for success.”

Currently for the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence Seaway the majority of commodities move in bulk. “There has been some discussion about containerized shipping,” Steenhoek said. “We are looking at all options and take an all the above approach. When it comes to containerized shipping, we have heard from a number of customers that want to be able to trace what they buy back to the source and where it was grown. That means you need to be able to trace and segment the soybeans including the transportation. That involves containerized shipping. If an opportunity to ship via containers through the St. Lawrence Seaway develops, that is something we would definitely welcome and continue to encourage.”  

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