ONTARIO, Ore. — Eastern Oregon is on the path to landing a major rail transload facility, and that news is sending a jolt of excitement through the region’s agricultural industry.
The Oregon Legislature’s recently passed $5.3 billion transportation bill includes $26 million to create a transload facility near Ontario in Malheur County.
A transload facility allows shipping containers to be transferred from one mode of transportation to another, in this case between truck and rail.
The facility would be a big benefit to the area’s agricultural sector, particularly the onion industry, Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, said.
“It would drive down the cost of freight significantly,” he said. “It would be a real benefit to our community.”
The facility could benefit the region’s alfalfa, timber, dairy and other industries as well but it would be a huge win for the onion industry, Bentz said during a public presentation June 13 in conjunction with a Malheur County Onion Growers Association board meeting.
“The entire facility is built around the onion industry,” he said. “Eighty to ninety percent of the facility is going to be for you guys.”
Onion growers and shippers applauded plans for the facility.
“This thing is huge,” MCOGA President Paul Skeen, a farmer, told Capital Press. “It’s a big, big deal. It will allow us to move product faster and cheaper.”
Most of the region’s onions are shipped by rail to the East Coast. They currently have to be taken by truck to the nearest transload facility in Wallula, Wash., before heading east.
It costs onion growers in Eastern Oregon and Southwestern Idaho about 50 cents per 50-pound bag to do that, said Grant Kitamura, general manager of Murakami Produce, an onion shipping company.
With a transload facility near Ontario, “That could be money in our pockets,” he said. “This is going to be a real salvation for our local onion industry.”
Shay Myers, general manager of Owyhee Produce, an onion shipper, estimates the transload facility could result in about $15 million per year in freight savings for the Oregon-Idaho onion industry.
“That’s just freight savings; it doesn’t include new market share that might be created by that (new) freight advantage,” he said.
Bentz, who was vice-co-chair of the 14-member committee that hammered out the transportation bill, said the biggest advantages of the transload facility would be reducing freight costs and speeding up delivery times.
He said the facility would attract product from the nearby Boise area and as far away as Burley in southcentral Idaho.
Kay Riley, general manager of Snake River Produce, an onion shipper, said that when it comes to shipping to the East Coast, the Oregon-Idaho onion industry enjoys about a 50-cent per bag natural geographic advantage over onion growers in Washington.
However, he added, that advantage is wiped away by the fact Oregon-Idaho onions have to backtrack to Washington before being shipped by rail to the East Coast.
“This (transload) facility would re-establish that advantage,” he said. “It’s huge (and) could be a real game-changer for us.”