Minnesota soybean farmer Joel Schreurs was in Panama last month, taking separate tours of the past and the future.
The past is the Panama Canal, vintage 1914, which has routed Minnesota-grown soybeans, corn and other products to China and other Asian markets for decades. The future is the Panama Canal expansion, now nearing completion, which will allow larger, longer and deeper oceangoing vessels to transit beginning in May.
“It’s an amazing feat what they’re building,” said Schreurs. The new locks are so massive, he said, that the oversized excavators and trucks parked at their bottom look like small toys.
“It’s a major, major project, and unless you see it for yourself, it’s really hard to even look at pictures and get a sense of how big it is,” he said.
Schreurs was in Panama with soybean leaders from several states because the canal is critical for U.S. soybean exports. About 1 billion bushels of the typical 4 billion-bushel U.S. harvest are shipped annually down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, according to industry estimates. Some of that will head to Europe and Africa, but about 600 million bushels will go west, and transit the Panama Canal en route to Asia.
Minnesota sits at the far end of the line when it comes to shipping corn, soybeans and other agricultural exports overseas. Yet the value of ag exports from the state has increased from $2.3 billion in 2000 to $7.3 billion in 2014. More than half of that value in 2014 came from soybeans, soybean meal, corn and feed, according to state estimates.
“Bulk grains exports — especially corn and soybeans — from Minnesota to Asian markets will benefit from the Panama Canal expansion,” said Minnesota Department of Agriculture economist Su Ye, although no estimates of the benefits have been made.
Ye said that some ag exports also leave Minnesota through the port of Duluth, and the majority moves on rail cars destined for ports in the Pacific Northwest. The state does not keep tabs on exactly how much grain is shipped in each of the distinct transportation systems, she said, but corn and soybeans produced near the Mississippi and Minnesota river systems typically move on barges, and farmers in western and northern areas find rail more economical.
Schreurs, who farms near Tyler in southwestern Minnesota, said he’ll continue to ship his grain by rail, but soybean growers in general could benefit if the expanded canal also opens up new export markets.
“Any time you can improve efficiency and make your shipping better, faster, and cheaper, it always works better on the farm end,” he said. “It’s going to come back to the farmers and probably help everybody.”
Rick Calhoun, president of Cargo Carriers Inc., Cargill’s barge business, said in an e-mail that the impact of the expanded Panama Canal for U.S. farmers and agriculture will evolve over time, and will depend in part on what happens with fees charged for transiting the canal.
Any investment in more efficient infrastructure should be positive for those who use it, he said, but may not necessarily mean that U.S. farmers benefit more than anyone else.
“While an improved canal holds potential savings for ships calling on U.S. ports, those same savings would apply to ships sailing from competing countries such as Brazil or Argentina,” he said.
To gain a true competitive advantage in world markets, Calhoun said, the U.S. should invest in its own port and waterways infrastructure, especially the lock and dam system built mostly in the 1930s that stretches almost 1,800 miles between Minneapolis and New Orleans.
The expanded Panama Canal has created a new lane of traffic in the canal area by building a third set of locks on each end of the 48-mile waterway that links the Atlantic and the Pacific. The locks can accommodate container ships that are about one-and-a-half times larger than the current maximum and can carry 12,000 containers instead of the current limit of 4,500. The new locks also will have room for larger ships that can each carry about 25 percent more bulk grain than the older system.
Construction of the project began in 2007 and was intended to be finished in time for the canal’s 100th birthday in 2014, but labor disputes, other delays and cost overruns have slowed its completion. The original cost was projected at $5.25 billion.
Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela said on Jan. 2 that the expanded part of the canal is likely to open in May. The consortium building it reported recently that the project is 96 percent completed.
Driving the project was not so much export traffic from the Americas, said Panamanian officials when they studied the need for the expansion, but the exponential increase in imports from Asia, and particularly from China to the U.S. The canal expansion has spurred billions of dollars of construction and port upgrades on the East Coast and elsewhere in the Caribbean to handle the larger ships and their cargoes.
Dan Mack — vice president of transportation and terminal operations for CHS, a global energy, grain and food company based in Inver Grove Heights — said that doubling the canal’s capacity is a “big deal” for the world that will provide benefits for decades to come. It should also make exports from the Gulf of Mexico that transit the canal more competitive with shipments from the West Coast, he said.
Ocean freight is typically booked as a cost or price per voyage, Mack said, so the more a vessel can carry, the lower the per-unit cost of the cargo.
But Mack said a lot remains unknown about the effects of the canal expansion on ocean freight, because so many other factors are also in play.
“Demand for global shipping, supply of vessels in a region, supply of vessels globally, the number of newly built vessels that are put into service, the number taken out of service or scrapped because of age or other reasons — all of these have impacts on the dynamics of the vessel freight market,” Mack said.
Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, said that in addition to allowing larger ships, the extra lane should result in reduced congestion and speedier transits.
“Success in the commodity industry like soybeans is largely a function of being able to get product to a customer at the most cost-effective and reliable manner,” he said. The Iowa-based coalition is made up of soybean boards from a dozen states, including Minnesota, and two national organizations.
Steenhoek said that having the Panama Canal become a stronger link in the logistics chain beginning this spring will come at a good time for the U.S. soybean industry. Exports are facing “significant headwinds” because of relaxing demand from some Asian customers, he said, and a stronger U.S. dollar compared to some South American competitors.
“It should all the more fortify our desire and our efforts to make sure that we have a transportation industry that can facilitate our profitability and not be an obstacle to it,” he said.