The Great Lakes maritime business runs deep with Adolph Ojard, who will retire this year after a decade of leading the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, Minnesota’s nautical window to the world.
His late father, Adolph Ojard Sr., was the last captain of the Edna G., the oldest working U.S. tugboat when it was retired in 1981 and later put on display in Two Harbors. The younger Adolph earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth in 1971, but quickly followed his dad into the transportation business — starting with manual labor on Duluth’s ore docks.
Ojard worked his way up over the years to become general manager of the DM&IR Railway and the USS Great Lakes Fleet, two of the most storied names in Minnesota’s iron ore business. Ojard left the private sector in 2003 when he was named executive director of the Duluth Port Authority, a state-created public agency.
Duluth-Superior, the Twin Ports, is by far the largest port complex on the Great Lakes, a hub for taconite, coal and grain — host to about 900 ships a year. The Star Tribune talked with Ojard last week about the port’s highs and lows over the past decade.
Q: What’s been the most positive development?
A: The resurgence of the iron ore industry has been most notable. The industry is on a solid footing, and the port and the maritime industry are key ingredients in the system for delivering iron ore to lower Great Lakes steel mills.
Q: The outbound coal trade accounts for a lot of lakers passing under the Aerial Bridge. But coal shipments have been off about 30 percent the past two years compared with the previous decade’s average. What’s up?
A: We have seen a significant falloff in demand for coal to Canada, as power plants there convert to natural gas and biofuels. The same is true to a lesser extent for U.S. shipments. But the downturn has been made up somewhat by new business — coal exports to Europe for power plants there.
Q: Project cargo, giant pieces of equipment often bound for wind farms or oil fields, have been a bright spot during your tenure. Explain the trade.
A: You wouldn’t think of Duluth as an energy hub, but ironically from a wind side we are. Fifty percent of all the wind energy tonnage — blades, towers, motors – shipped through the Great Lakes system goes to the port of Duluth. That imported equipment is going to many states, Montana, Illinois and Oklahoma to name a few. Plus, wind equipment — five or six ships full — that was made in North Dakota has been exported from here, too. As for the oil sands industry in Canada, we have become a major port of entry for huge pieces of equipment like pressure vessels for refining.
Q: Will these be growth areas for some time?
A: I think so, though the wind industry has its ups and downs because of the uncertainty of government tax credits.
Q: The grain business has historically been the port’s main magnet for saltwater ships, and spring and durum wheat have been staple exports. Yet grain shipments have fallen in each of the past three decades, a slide that seems to be worsening. 2012 was the port’s weakest year for grain since the St. Lawrence Seaway opened in 1959. What’s going on?
A: The higher U.S. dollar in the past two years has made our grains less competitive. But more important, we’ve seen a shift in the marketplace. More grain is going to Asia. And Asian-bound wheat is exported out of the Pacific Northwest or sometimes the Gulf of Mexico. We’re just too far removed. We still have a strong presence in Europe and the Middle East for high-quality durum wheat.
However, the Ukraine has turned into a significant exporter of wheat, and they have better access to the Middle East market. The planting of corn and soybean crops further north in the U.S. has also had a negative effect. They are taking acreage away from wheat, which has been the dominant export grain for the Twin Ports.