By Joseph L. Murphy
A drive into the town of Aberdeen, WA, is telling in itself. Not more than 15 years ago, the town was down on its luck as logging companies and other manufacturers laid off workers; creating a region that could only boast of beautiful landscapes and the second highest unemployment rate in the nation.
A dramatic turnaround started when farmers from the Midwest, state checkoff boards and AGP invested in a small port with big potential. That port, called Grays Harbor, is now responsible for millions of dollars in commodity exports every year. In the process, the area has erased much of it’s unemployment troubles and is becoming a booming town complete with Starbucks Coffee shops, Home Depot and many other businesses. It proves, once again, that agriculture not only can feed the world, but it can feed a starving economy, too.
I was able to tour the area last weekend and see for myself all of the positive impacts Iowa soybeans have had on the area and even a possible glimpse of the future.
Sitting at a welcome dinner while reflecting on a full day of touring the harbor and area towns with a group of Asian grain buyers, I enjoyed conversations and food with AGP representatives, commissioners from the Port of Grays Harbor and other officials.
“This tour has been great. Grays Harbor is a very important place,” Leo Liu, manager of shipping development for Jiusan Oils & Grains Industries Group in China. “When our ships come here, there are no lines so we can load them as soon as possible and that means we can get them back to China as soon as possible. That saves us money.”
Liu went on to say that the tour opened his eyes to the possibilities of his company investing money into the port to control the flow of soybeans they buy from the Midwest that come to the port and eventually to China. Liu also sees an investment in the port as a way to control unwanted foreign materials that are shipped to his country.
Liu’s company imports about five million tons of soybeans from the United States every year. He believes that every Panamax ship carries about 1,200 metric tons of unwanted foreign material. Considering their yearly shipping amounts and foreign materials, he believes more than 100 vessels are used every year just to carry that waste. He would like to take the money being spent on those vessels and invest it in a grain silo or other infrastructure at the port to control the product they purchase.
“We pay that money for foreign materials, why wouldn’t we pay for an investment at Grays Harbor?” he asked.
When Chuck Caldwell, one of three elected commissioners at Grays Harbor, started in 2002 he said there were 12 ships a year using the port. This year, he said they are on pace to have 102 ships. According to Caldwell, the increase in shipping has allowed them to invest in infrastructure like rail lines and attract new business like auto exports.
“You know when you switch a light off in a room and it gets dark?” Caldwell asked. “When AGP came, the light came on and that’s what got us going here.”