Rolling on the Riverby Eric Zakarison
Wheat Life, February 2004
Wheat left on the farm has relatively little value unless it can be transported to market. This is why the Washington Wheat Commission (WWC) continues to emphasize the importance of river, rail and road for transporting PNW wheat. The 2003 export tour focused in part on the Snake and Columbia river system, -- the PNW wheat industry's "water highway" to world markets. Glenn Vanselow, the executive director of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association (PNWA), addressed the group as the tour bus coursed the Columbia to Portland. Vanselow warned that unless more federal funding is appropriated for maintenance and operation of the river system -- including channel, dam and lock maintenance -- barge navigation in the Columbia and Snake rivers could be in jeopardy. Maintaining a 14-foot channel and functional lock gates at the dams are critical for continued movement of wheat by barge. The WWC commends the work of Vanselow and the PNWA, and their advocacy to enhance the operation of the river system for moving grain to market.
The transportation portion of the tour included a visit to Tidewater Barge Company in Vancouver to board one of the massive, diesel-powered tugboats and learn about the logistics, intricacies and challenges of moving grain on the Snake and Columbia rivers. The Tidewater tour, hosted by grain sales manager Greg Lines, included presentations about barge navigation and tug maintenance. Tidewater staff explained how company captains steer the tugs to push the 275-foot barges -- try it on a windy day! -- and how their mechanics keep the 3000 horsepower tug engines running smoothly. To complement the Tidewater Barge Company visit, the group also visited the Bonneville Lock and Dam to learn more about river navigation.
The inside of exports
To learn more about exporting PNW wheat, the tour included a visit to Columbia Grain International's Terminal 5 facility in Portland. The 4-million-bushel Terminal 5 elevator (manned by Randy Cartmill) loaded approximately 105-million bushels of grain for export in 2003. About 10 percent of all U.S. wheat exports pass through Terminal 5, which not only draws grain by river, rail and road from the PNW, but from as far away as Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas.
The tour also featured a presentation by Tommie Williams, CLD Pacific LLC, who is a grain export merchandiser and WWC board member. Williams explained the challenges of exporting wheat, including managing price fluctuations, risk, customer credit, transportation, and even forces beyond human control like weather. He said that these and other dynamics have reduced the number of export companies handling grain in Washington and Oregon to only four. Williams said that railcar availability this marketing year is particularly poor, due in part to the railroad companies' inability to meet peak demand for hopper cars and service. This has left warehouse companies and exporters alike scrambling to ship and source grain via truck and barge, which is not easily accessible for some grain stored inland and far from river terminals.
The WWC is please to sponsor the annual PNW Wheat Export Tour and Wheat Quality Workshop. Sincere appreciation is extended to those who participated in the 2003 tour and the companies who graciously hosted events. The 2004 tour reservation list is already filling us, so please contact the WWC at 509-456-2481 if you would like to attend: your perspective about growing and marketing Washington wheat will never be the same.
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