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Wheats woes give port a big beating

Grain shipping drops 80 percent; marine terminals register jump in other kinds of traffic

Grain shipments through the Port of Portland,Êwhich bills itself as the second largest exporter of wheat in the United States, were down a staggering 80 percent in January from the level reached in January 2002.

Grain experts say the sharp decline,Êreflected in new port statistics,Êwas the result of a drought that cut U.S. production and brought a clutch of competitors into the world marketplace.

The wheat decline dragged down total tonnage handled by all of the port's marine terminals in January by almost 21.5 percent from the same month last year.

Calls by oceangoing vessels declined 7.5 percent, and break-bulk tonnage Ñ large cargo that can't be containerized or blown into a hold Ñ fell almost 12 percent.

At the same time, the number of containers loaded at the port's marine terminals in January jumped 67 percent over January 2002, and intermodal rail moves were up 52 percent.

The number of autos moving through Portland, the nation's third-largest auto port for imports and exports, climbed to 30,885. That was a 12 percent increase over last January and the highest January total in seven years.

Lockout, weather have impact

Bill Wyatt, the port's executive director, said the statistics reflect a number of factors Ñ the drought, an 11-day lockout last fall that shut down the 29 West Coast ports, Evergreen Marine Corp.'s exit from Portland, and the state of the economy.

The lockout clogged commerce at the California ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, which handle massive numbers of containers. More than three months later, Wyatt said, 'I keep hearing stories about people who have got containers on docks somewhere in Southern California, and they can't get them out.'

Historically, Portland has handled only a fraction of the West Coast's container traffic; it's only the 15th-busiest container port in the country. Now, the port director said, the city's relatively uncongested terminals are proving attractive to shippers.

The result? 'I think many importers are continuing to look for diversification of their port of entry, and I think we've been the beneficiary of that,' Wyatt said. 'I do think the congestion up and down the coast has actually helped us. I don't think that's a flash in the pan. I think that could work into something.'

Many of the containers handled in Portland are empties, headed back to Asia to be refilled. Many arrive in Portland by rail.

The movement of goods by container is dependent on empties making it back to their port of origin.

' 'Balancing equipment', it's called,' Wyatt said. 'Candidly, it's a nice business for us because we get paid by the move. It also makes us slightly more competitive on rail.'

Other countries enter wheat field

The drastically lower grain-loading figures, meanwhile, are a graphic example of the drought's effect.

In January a year ago, almost 262,000 tons of grain were loaded at the port's marine terminals. This year, the total was 46,575 tons.

'That's one ship,' said Jonathan Schlueter of Pacific Northwest Grain and Feed Association Inc., a Portland-based grain marketing organization, referring to the amount loaded.

Because of the drought, he said, 'We have had the smallest wheat crop in 30 years in this country. While we have a small crop to sell and our prices are high, we are facing stiff competition from new and aggressive suppliers in many of the important markets around the world.'

Last year's harvest numbers were even more dire for Australia and Canada, two other leading grain exporters.

'In the case of the Canadians, they had the worst crop in the 60-year history of the Canadian Wheat Board,' Schlueter said.

In Australia, 'by some accounts, it's the worst drought in 500 years,' he said. 'They've got desperately dry conditions in Australia É and it's not likely to improve next year.'

That means 'we've got three major exporters severely cut back,' he said. 'When that happens, the price goes up, then other players come into the market.'

Among them: Russia and Ukraine, which made the list of the world's top five wheat exporters for the first time.

The wheat the countries are selling is cheap, Schlueter said, although 'it's not good quality grain, necessarily.'

'It was not a happy year,' he said. 'We don't want to repeat 2002.'

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