DULUTH — The amount of grain leaving the Duluth-Superior port this shipping season hit its lowest level since 1890, in a year that also ended with a decrease in coal and total tonnage.

But bright spots included general cargo tonnage that more than quadrupled the five-season average, the most in nearly four decades.

"While it doesn't offset grain or coal in total tonnage, those general cargo shipments deliver outsize economic value per ton in comparison, and they also support development of regional industry and greener energy sources," said Deb DeLuca, executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, in a news release.

Many reasons played into the decline in grain shipments, which were down 20.3% from 2021.

U.S. wheat exports have declined in recent years with Russia "dumping wheat on the world market" because of its war with Ukraine, said Randy Martinson, a market analyst with Martinson Ag Risk Management in Fargo.

And in a U.N.-brokered deal between Russia and Ukraine, wheat that had been accumulating in Ukraine is being shipped safely on the Black Sea.

Grain is a dynamic commodity, DeLuca said, "and the port faced a number of headwinds in 2022, including two years of tightening grain supplies worldwide, further exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, a very strong dollar, extremely elevated transportation costs and competition from other countries' less expensive wheat."

Total tonnage for the Duluth-Superior port was down 7.6% from 2021, at about 30.4 million tons.

The Twin Ports season ended Jan. 21 with the lake freighter Saginaw carrying 16,000 tons of iron ore out of Superior. It was the latest departing ship from the port since 1975. The shipment to the Algoma Steel facility in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, was part of nearly 19 million tons of iron ore that moved through the port this season, close to the five-season average.

Taconite makes up the majority of outgoing cargo. Across the Great Lakes, iron ore shipments were down 18%.

General cargo included giant industrial pieces, such as 260-foot wind turbine blades and a 125-ton dryer for ST Paper in West Duluth, handled through Duluth Cargo Connect. The Port Authority pointed to beet pulp pellets as another highlight with 150,000 tons exported, an 85% increase over the prior season.
Jana Hollingsworth is a reporter covering a range of topics in Duluth and northeastern Minnesota for the Star Tribune.