Oregon’s agricultural exporters will soon gain a more accessible link to Asian markets with the resumption of weekly container ship service at the Port of Portland.
Ocean carriers stopped calling on the port’s container terminal in 2015 and 2016 due to productivity slowdowns associated with a labor dispute.
The end of direct weekly shipping from Terminal 6 meant that Oregon producers of straw, hay, seed and other farm goods were forced to truck containers to more distant ports along Washington’s Puget Sound.
Now that South Korean ocean carrier SM Line has added Portland to the rotation of ports it serves along the Pacific Rim, agricultural exporters are expected to benefit from the more cost-effective transportation option.
“It’s the most efficient way to move products out of Oregon,” said Dave Dillon, executive vice president of the Oregon Farm Bureau.
Ocean shipping is less expensive due to the large volume of containers that can be moved with a relatively modest amount of fuel and labor, he said. Having a local access point to weekly container shipping helps Oregon’s farmers be more competitive.
“For agriculture, it’s really an encouraging step forward,” Dillon said.
SM Line is expected to begin calling on Terminal 6 in January, adding Portland to the rotation of five Asian ports and two North American ports that it serves.
The Oregon Shipping Group, which advocates for transportation investment, believes “the more options we have open to Oregon shippers, the better,” said Kevin Mannix, its executive director.
However, the maritime operations at Terminal 6 should not detract the state government from investing in truck-to-rail intermodal facilities or a possible expansion of the Port of Coos Bay, Mannix said.
“It does not mean we should close our eyes to more alternatives to expand our shipping capability,” he said.
Last year, a report commissioned by the Port of Portland found that Terminal 6 would have to move about 200,000 containers a year to break even, which is higher than the peak levels it reached before losing ocean carrier service.
Mannix said the report highlighted other challenges facing Terminal 6, such as a hazardous river bar that ships have to cross and the necessity for them to hire river pilots, which may continue to impede its competitiveness.
Investing in transportation infrastructure is needed for Oregon exporters to access multiple modes of transportation, he said. “We got into this problem by being too reliant on the Port of Portland alone.”
In 2018, the port launched an intermodal facility at the terminal to switch containers from trucks onto railcars headed to Washington ports in Seattle and Tacoma.
In 2017, the Swire Group agreed to begin maritime calls at the port, though its ocean carriers primarily export trucks to Australia and only service the terminal monthly.
SM Line’s service will be more frequent and rely on six ships of the Panamax size category, which can hold fewer than 5,000, 20-foot-long containers.
To compare, the ultra-large vessels used by some major shipping companies can hold more than 18,000, 20-foot-long containers, which improves their efficiency but prevents them from calling on smaller inland ports such as Portland’s.