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Baltimore bridge collapse will have some impact on ag industry
By Doug Schmitz
Iowa Correspondent

BALTIMORE – The collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge at the Port of Baltimore on March 26 will have consequences for the ag industry, but most experts say they will be fairly limited.
Mike Steenhoek, Soy Transportation Coalition executive director, said the top five agricultural products handled – import and export combined – at the Port of Baltimore are sugar, soybeans, grocery items, beer, and animal feed.
“Shipments are being diverted to other East Coast ports – particularly Norfolk, New York and New Jersey, and others,” he told Farm World.
According to the USDA, in 2023, the Port of Baltimore exported 324,540 metric tons of soybeans via container.
“The closure at the Port of Baltimore will certainly impact those farmers and exporters who reflect the 324,540 metric tons of soybeans that are exported from the facility,” he said. “While that is a modest amount, compared to other port regions for soybean exports, it will obviously be significant to those who do rely on the Port of Baltimore. Soybean and other exporters are still in the process of making adjustments to the closure.”
According to a recent analysis by Daniel Munch, American Farm Bureau Federation economist, on the export side, in 2023, over 605,000 metric tons of agricultural products were exported from Baltimore, corresponding to nearly $650 million in value. He said this equates to just 0.3 percent of total U.S. agricultural exports by quantity, and 0.4 percent by value.
On the import side, in 2023, he said, over 1.59 metric tons of agricultural products entered through Baltimore, corresponding to nearly $3.34 billion in value. By quantity, he said over 25 percent of all U.S. imported raw beet and cane sugar entered through Baltimore (562,000 metric tons, valued at $391 million).
“Baltimore has a fairly minor role, comparatively, in U.S. agricultural trade, although its value in providing businesses – including farmers in the region and even across the nation – access to international markets should not be understated,” he said.
Of all the agriculture-related businesses, he said “sugar refineries appear to be the most exposed to possible negative impacts from the Port’s closure. Nearby refineries, however, have assured customers they had six to eight weeks of raw sugar on hand before operations could potentially be impacted.”
Rob Johansson, American Sugar Alliance director of economics and policy analysis, told Farm World, “The American Sugar Alliance is in constant discussions with the USDA. According to the most recent USDA data, there are adequate supplies of raw sugar available for U.S. refiners. There will not be any shortage in the U.S. refined sugar market as the result of the bridge collapse in Baltimore’s harbor.”
In 2023, 1.3 million tons of farm machinery cargo came through Baltimore terminals. 
“The inability of farmers, domestically or internationally, to receive equipment they ordered could have a significant impact as spring planting season arrives,” he told Farm World. “However, most reports have described limited impacts thus far. Equipment manufacturers have successfully re-routed many shipments to other East Coast ports like Norfolk, Va., and Savannah, Ga.
“Those re-routes do contribute to congestion at other ports that may not have planned for re-routing,” he said. “Locations that are farther away also increased total shipping costs. Like the sugar refineries, most agricultural equipment assembly plants report having enough supplies on hand to withstand delays in the supply chain.”
He added, “U.S. farmers should not expect delays in (equipment) orders. The Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM) reported a larger possible impact of outbound shipments of agricultural equipment (to buyers and farmers outside the U.S.).”
AEM told Farm World in an April 11 joint statement, however, “The Port of Baltimore is a very important part of our industry’s ability to ship equipment and equipment components all over the world. Companies that use this port are implementing contingency plans and finding alternative solutions, while the port manages this difficult situation.”
In his analysis, Munch said data on the impact to other important inputs, such as fertilizer, is limited.
“There was one report of a urea ammonium nitrate vessel that was scheduled to unload in Baltimore,” he said. “It is likely the vessel will be diverted to other nearby ports, perhaps to Chesapeake, Va., or Philadelphia.
“Supply chain issues usually lead to higher prices for goods, and it would not be surprising to see the local price of inputs tick up in response,” he added. “Most farmers likely have already paid for their fertilizer supply for the year, but for those in the region waiting on shipments, diversions may cause headaches.”
A March 28 statement by The Fertilizer Institute said the destruction of the bridge in Baltimore should have a relatively limited impact on U.S. fertilizer trade.
“Over the last five years, on average, about 1 percent of all U.S. fertilizer imports have come in through the Port of Baltimore,” the statement on its website read. “In 2023, fertilizer imports into the Port of Baltimore were valued at nearly $75 million. Over 86 percent of those imports were nitrogenous fertilizers.”
Scott Gerlt, American Soybean Association chief economist, told Farm World, “The Port is a significant location for trade of agricultural equipment imports and exports. While information is scarce on how this is being affected, one significant exporter that I’ve talked to that uses Baltimore as their primary export port has been able to redirect shipments through other ports without significant disruption.
“Without the bridge to move agricultural equipment that classifies as over-sized loads, there are additional routing concerns as haulers cannot take many of these items through the interstate tunnel system through Baltimore,” he added.
Munch said the Army Corps of Engineers hopes to open a limited-access channel for barge container ships, and some vessels moving cars and farm equipment by the end of April, and restore full capacity of the Port by May 31.
“If this timeline comes to fruition, compounding supply chain disruptions on agriculture will be limited,” he said.
4/19/2024