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Cabinet members urge to relieve ag supply chain

Istock Ocean carrier - IstockGetty481541431.jpg
OCEAN CARRIER WOES: Chinese shippers make six times more to ship products to the U.S. than taking it back to China and sometimes leaving ag products in ports instead of putting on empty boats.
Ocean shippers urged to provide better service for ag shipments and expand use of other West Coast ports.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg issued a letter urging the world’s leading ocean carriers to help mitigate disruptions to agricultural shippers of U.S. exports and urging the world’s leading ocean carriers to reform their practices to provide better service to U.S. agricultural exporters. The letter specifically referenced the need to expand use of available West Coast terminal capacity and to “restore reciprocal treatment of imports and exports [which] is inherent in trade.” 

The backup outside the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach remained high, falling slightly from 97 ships last week to 94 for Dec. 17, though it was as high as 102 during the week. A Bloomberg article on clearing U.S. port congestion turns into a game Whac-A-Mole notes the Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Gene Seroka.

The Port of Oakland, Port of Portland and other West Coast ports have excess capacity to alleviate supply chain congestion, the cabinet members state. Particularly, the suspension of service by ocean carriers at the Port of Oakland earlier this year has required agricultural exporters to truck their harvests to the already heavily congested Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. While ships must dwell for several days in San Pedro Bay to berth at Southern California ports, other West Coast ports are less congested and berths more readily available. 

“Restoration of service would not only ease the congestion at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in Southern California but would allow the prompt export of American goods overseas and ease the strain on the supply of long-haul truckers necessary to transport goods from Northern California to Los Angeles and Long Beach,” Vilsack and Buttigieg suggest to the leaders of the shipping firms.

The U.S. Dairy Export Council and National Milk Producers Federation say they have repeatedly met with USDA and DOT officials as well as the White House over the past several months to urge a greater administration focus on the shipping supply chain crisis’s impact on agricultural exporters. The dairy organizations have urged the administration to call out profiteering by foreign-owned carriers at the expense of dairy exporters and take steps to address the supply chain crisis that’s cost the dairy industry $1.3 billion over just the first three quarters of 2021.

The dairy groups say the letter was a key step in the right direction and builds on the previous week’s successful passage of House legislation designed to curb some of the bad-faith practices by ocean carriers. USDA and DOT note that, “This imbalance is not sustainable and contributes to the logjam of empty containers clogging ports. The poor service and refusal to serve customers when the empty containers are clearly available are unacceptable and, if not resolved quickly, may require further examination and action by the Federal Maritime Commission.”

“Dairy exporters are enduring tremendous challenges in getting their high-quality products to customers in overseas markets, which puts our industry’s reputation as a reliable supplier at risk. Our competitors in the European Union and Oceania are eager to swoop in and scoop up those sales,” says Krysta Harden, president and CEO of USDEC. “USDEC commends the administration’s recognition that the current situation facing our dairy exporters cannot continue and strongly supports further steps by the Federal Maritime Commission and other administration entities to drive change swiftly.”

Dairy farmers and their cooperatives have invested significantly in painstakingly cultivating export markets to help meet the growing global demand for dairy. This year’s shipping supply chain crisis has created enormous upheaval in maintaining those sales, which are so critical to the overall demand for American milk,” adds Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of NMPF. “Dairy farmers strongly support USDA and DOT’s castigation of ocean shippers’ abusive practices and urge the Administration to take the steps necessary to bring about meaningful reforms in export access for our dairy industry.”

United Fresh Produce Association says it supports continued efforts by the Biden administration to address the challenges impacting West Coast ports that are vital to the fresh produce supply chain. “For both those engaged in imports or exports, the current situation is untenable. That is why United Fresh has also lent its support to the Ocean Shipping Reform Act which recently passed the House with overwhelming bipartisan support,” United Fresh states.

Focus on more truckers

On Dec. 16, Buttigieg was joined by Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and White House National Economic Director Brian Deese in hosting a roundtable at the White House with trucking industry leaders. The discussion focused on efforts to retain and recruit new drivers and address other longstanding workforce challenges.

United Fresh says it is encouraged by Buttigieg’s collaboration with the trucking industry to find solutions to help address labor challenges to ensure we have a workforce to feed our country and ensure that American consumers have access to our industry’s bounty of fresh produce.

Related: Infrastructure bill brings help for truck driver shortage

“We look forward to continuing to work with the administration and Congress to address these challenges throughout our supply chain,” he says.

Walsh announced nearly $10 million in funding the Department of Labor devoted to registered apprenticeships, and dedicated resources to support veterans recruitment. Several participants spoke of the high return on investment they had seen from creating registered apprenticeships, and the speed at which the Labor Department had approved new programs for their industry in recent months. Several participants announced their commitment to use the new Registered Apprenticeship Accelerator, which can approve new programs in as few as 48 hours.

Industry participants discussed the steps they were taking to both recruit and retain a diverse workforce into the industry, from women to underrepresented minorities to veterans, and to create a safe and welcoming career paths for these new drivers.

Jacqui Fatka, long-time policy editor at Farm Futures, will bring her valuable agricultural policy insight to the stage of the Business Summit in Iowa City, IA Jan. 20-21, 2021. Featuring industry experts and in-depth training sessions, it’s an opportunity to gain clear insights for a profitable future. Use code BOGO22 to receive discounted rate for a guest. Learn more and register now! 

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