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Baltimore port closure is slight snag for Delaware farms

Katie Tabeling

Delaware farmers grow and export large amounts of soybeans each year as part of the nation’s international trade. Delaware farmers are seeing little impact so far on how it’s impacting business. | PHOTO COURTESY OF CORTEVA

WILMINGTON — Delaware farms and others across the nation have been contending with a setback in receiving fertilizer and machinery and getting key crop exports out after the Port of Baltimore closed for a week while crews worked to remove pieces of the debris.

The Port of Baltimore ranks among the top ports for soybean exports, with the United States Department of Agriculture reporting that 324,540 metric tons were exported through container vessels over the course of a year. It is second in terms of volume —the Baltimore port imports more than a half a million tons of sugar. 

That channel of trade was halted when the cargo ship Dali lost power and crashed into the Francis Scott Key Bridge, causing it to collapse. Six people are presumed dead and the shutdown of the port has sent reverberations through the region.

“The tragic accident involving … Key Bridge in Baltimore will impact agriculture. The Port of Baltimore exports grains such as soybeans and wheat, some of which come from Delmarva,” Delaware Secretary of Agriculture Michael Scuse said in a prepared statement. “There is the possibility of declining prices for grain products and increasing costs on imported products until companies reach agreements to use other ports, such as Delaware’s Port Wilmington.”

Delaware farmers continue to be a small piece in the larger picture of the East Coast’s role in international trade. The United States ranks as one of the top producers of agricultural goods in the world, with soybeans, produce and other foods at the forefront. In 2023, Delaware farmers harvested 148,000 acres of soybean, valued at $85.7 million.

Soybean and corn are prime crops in part because of the animal feed industry. Merchandisers can buy the crop and grind it to form a meal and send it to ports in Baltimore and Norfolk, though soybean can also be ground to an oil for other food uses.

For scale, Delaware, the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia are among the largest chicken producing areas in the nation. In 2022, the region bought 39 million bushels of soybean locally for feed. That makes up a sizable portion of the $1.6 billion spent on feed ingredients per year.

While most of Delaware’s chicken is consumed in the mid-Atlantic region, about 10% of it is exported to other countries, namely Canada and Mexico. Baltimore’s port handles some of those goods, including shipments from Mountaire in Millsboro and Perdue, headquartered in Salisbury, Md. Industry leaders expect impacts of the port closure in Baltimore to be minimal.

“Because of the scale and flexibility of our supply chain, we are able to mitigate any potential impact on our business operations in and around the state,” a Perdue spokesperson told the Delaware Business Times.

Where Delaware farmers may feel more of the pressure is on receiving goods like farm machinery and fertilizer to grow and harvest crops. The Port of Baltimore handled 1.3 million tons of roll on/roll off farm and construction machinery in 2023, sending tractors and other equipment to the mid-Atlantic and Midwestern states.

“All your major tractor and combine companies use that port to ship equipment all over the country. If you ever drive on I-70 and I-68 going west during the work week, you’ll see combines loaded on trailers headed into Baltimore all the time,” Kent County Farm Bureau President Jim Minner told DBT. “It’s going to hinder things because Baltimore’s the closest port to manufacturing. The only other option is Richmond by distance, but I’m not sure if they’re set up to handle that much equipment.”

Along with equipment, the Port of Baltimore imports the most ammonium nitrate, more commonly known as a liquid fertilizer, ranking as the fourth of all U.S. Ports. That good was already getting squeezed by conflict in the Middle East, complicating trade in the Red Sea, as well as heightened tensions with Russia, which mostly exports the liquid fertilizer.

Delaware Farm Bureau President Don Clifton told DBT that last week, there was a backup of at least 40 trucks waiting to load the liquid fertilizer and ship it out. He said as time has gone on, that has appeared to stabilize and freight trucks are back on the highway.

“I think most suppliers right now have what they need for corn planting. There may be an impact to transportation costs down the road,” Clifton said. “It’s good practice to apply the nitrogen in stages. When the crop is about a third in its growth stage, you apply more to keep it moving. That’s the supply that’s in question right now.”

Both farmers told DBT that the Port of Baltimore was causing a minor hiccup in Delaware’s agriculture trade, but the longer the port stayed closed for commerce, the more the problem mounts.

“What this illustrates is all the forces at work in the agriculture industry and how vital the transportation network is to what we do,” Clifton said. “Everything works together for one purpose, and we often take it for granted.”

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