Most agricultural exports are up, but the lack of shipping containers and fewer truckers slows down trade

Alice Mannette
The Hutchinson News
Loading cut corn during harvest on Oct. 9 in Haven.

Although the supply chain is wobbling, several experts say agricultural exports are continuing to thrive — especially in the Chinese market.

Gregg Doud, former U.S. chief agriculture trade negotiator and current vice president of global situational awareness and chief economist for Aimpoint Research, said last year, China imported more than $10 billion of beef from around the world, with 50% of exported beef world-wide headed their way. 

"We are selling China roughly on average of $100 million worth of beef a month," Doud said last week during a conference of North American Agricultural Journalists. "There is a lot of underlying strength fundamentally in the cattle market."

In addition to meat, Doud is bullish on the increase in exports.

"Through August, our exports were up 91%; almost double what they were," he said. "We're expanding our opportunities."

Doud, who was raised on a dry-land sorghum, soybean, wheat, pig and cow-calf operation near Mankato, Kansas, said along with beef, China is increasing its demand for both corn and soybeans.

"China is looking at about 29 million tons of imports of corn," he said. 

Greg Krissek, the CEO of the Kansas Corn Growers Association, said exports of bulk corn are down from last year, but, he said, last year was a record year.

"In our discussions with the Grains Council, we know that bulk shipments of commodity corn are generally going well, especially using the barge and rail system to deliver to the ports," Krissek said. 

Doud is also seeing increases in exports to both Japan and Mexico, which are up by 21%. He is noticing both higher quantities and higher prices. According to the November 2021 USDA trade export report, in September, the U.S. exported the most beef to Japan, South Korea, China and Mexico. 

Trucker shortage and empty shipping containers 

Empty shipping containers, Doud said, headed back to China is an issue for the agricultural market, saying so much of what the U.S. exports leaves in containers.

"If you look at the Port of Tacoma, Washington, in fact, 80% of what goes out of that container port are agricultural products to Asia," he said. "And right now, that shipping industry very clearly indicated they'd rather speed the process up and get those empty containers back to Asia first, without taking the time to reload them with some sort of agricultural commodity before you ship them back over."

That's having an impact in reducing U.S. agricultural exports, he said. He does not forecast this situation to change soon.  

Krissek said this issue affects Kansas biodiesel and specialty grains. It also effects equipment.

"We shipped a piece of equipment out in June, but it didn't get to the Ukraine until October," said Mike Bergmeier, the president of ShieldAg Equipment, an agricultural equipment manufacturer out of South Hutchinson.

Trucking delays and lack of truckers is also hurting Kansas grains.

"The trucking shortage has serious implications for domestic movement of grain and that is also a concern for our growers," Krissek said. "Efforts to ensure we have adequate shipping by truck, barge and rail continue to be a high priority for Kansas Corn and our partners."

Ted McKinney, CEO for the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, expects this trucking issue to last for at least 12 to 18 months.

Trade agreements with China 

McKinney said the trade agreements with China helped increase the export of goods to that country.

"It has not been stated nearly enough the success of the China Phase One agreement, and I'll acknowledge that it wasn't without some pain," he said. "I mean, there were tariffs, but China has a way of not just giving in and saying sure we'll give you everything you want."

McKinney is hoping that negotiations with both India and countries in Africa will soon yield positive results.

Exports from 2020 to 2021, according to the USDA, have increased in volume for corn, 46%, sorghum, 31%, and soybeans, 16%. Wheat exports have decreased in volume by 5% and cotton exports by 4%. Red meats increased by 18%.

"The U.S. is our principal supplier of agricultural products," Mike Gifford, who served as Canada's chief agricultural trade negotiator and principal agricultural trade policy advisor to the ministers of agriculture and trade, said during last week's NAAJ conference. "It's very, very clear why trade reform is of paramount interest."

McKinney said Europe's Fork to Farm initiative will eliminate many U.S. imports due to growing conditions, including chemical inputs. 

"It's going to be a little bit of the wild wooly west until we get the WTO (World Trade Organization) more fully functioning," he said. The bilateral, trilateral or regional agreements, "start to undermine the uniformity that comes with a global system called the WTO, or before it the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade).