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Trade war, pandemic take bite out of french fry orders

Northwest Seaport Alliance’s total volumes, including potatoes, down nearly 24%

The Northwest Seaport Alliance (NWSA) ports of Seattle and Tacoma, Washington, exported 67,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) — $800 million worth — of frozen french fries in 2019.

The trade war with China and the coronavirus pandemic have taken a bite out of those exports.

“We usually grow about 165,000 acres of potatoes in Washington state. That will net close to 10 billion pounds of potatoes,” said Matt Harris, director of government affairs and assistant executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission. “That crop is turned into what America loves, what the world loves, which is that great french fry. And we export that fry to over 50 countries. 

“As the trade war had taken its toll on our growers and our markets, the pandemic came in and it was like that uppercut that really put us on our heels and now we’re on the ropes. We’ve seen a reduction in our crops. We’re probably going to see 20,000 or so less acres planted this year,” Harris said.

Harris, who spoke during the NWSA’s briefing on May volumes Wednesday, explained that restaurants, not grocers, get the majority of the Washington potato crop.

“When consumers are not able to go to their favorite restaurant, whether that is in Beijing or Moses Lake, Washington, we are hurt,” Harris said. “We’ve seen growers have to plow under their crop for the 2020 year. We still have the 2019 crop remaining in storage.”

He said Washington’s growers realized others were hurting too and developed a program to donate 1 million pounds of potatoes.

“We were able to help our communities that have supported us in purchasing our potato products,” Harris said. “We have seen some difficult times and now we’re hopeful that as we progress through this pandemic we can find some stability, find some growth in our markets and all together heal as a country, as a state and as a global economy.” 

More than potatoes drop

The NWSA on Wednesday reported a 23.8% year-over-year container volume drop in May, handling 240,671 TEUs.

Through the first five months of 2020, overall container volumes declined 18.8% compared to 2019. The NWSA handled a total of 1,277,227 TEUs from Jan. 1 to May 31, marking the softest five months since 2009, when the gateway moved 1,210,284 TEUs. 

“As expected, the economic fallout from the COVID pandemic, combined with the ongoing tariff war, continues to disrupt the global supply chain,” said NWSA CEO John Wolfe. 

The NWSA’s ports had 46 canceled sailings through the end of May.

“The shipping lines have announced 17 more canceled sailings,” Wolfe said. “This is an unprecedented number of canceled sailings. … These canceled sailings not only disrupt terminal operations in Seattle and Tacoma, they create a ripple effect across the whole supply chain. 

“In terms of jobs, these impacts are felt by our longshore workers, our truck drivers, our rail operators and many others who help us move cargo through our gateway,” he said. “Over the last several weeks, we’ve seen a 25 to 35% drop in longshore hours as compared to 2019. 

“As a consumer, you may notice your online purchases taking a bit longer to arrive. That’s an example of the disruption of the supply chain,” Wolfe said. “For our export customers shipping goods throughout Asia, these canceled sailings could mean not enough containers to put their agricultural goods on vessels to these foreign markets.”  

Full imports declined 22.9% in May year-over-year, while full exports decreased 15.5%, the NWSA said. 

Also in May, breakbulk cargo volumes were down 1% year-over-year to 118,000 metric tons. Auto volumes for 2020 through May 31 totaled 60,018, down 20.6% from the same period last year.

Total domestic container volumes for the first five months dipped 6.3%. Alaska and Hawaii volumes declined 6.6% and 4.7%, respectively. 

Black Lives Matter

International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) dockworkers at the ports of Seattle and Tacoma will take part in Friday’s observance of Juneteenth, commemorating the arrival of news in Texas that slaves throughout America had been emancipated. 

“This Friday the ILWU dockworkers at approximately 29 West Coast ports will stop work for eight hours in observance of Juneteenth. The ILWU holds a stop work membership meeting every month during the night shift and for this month the ILWU and the Pacific Maritime Association have agreed to move the meeting to June 19 to allow members to participate in Juneteenth activities,” Wolfe said.

“The Northwest Seaport Alliance supports the decision [and is] in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. We as an organization continue to look for opportunities to provide an inclusive workplace that is free from all forms of discrimination and harassment,” Wolfe said. 

West Seattle High-Rise Bridge

Peter Steinbrueck, NWSA co-chair and Port of Seattle commission president, said the alliance will continue to work with its partners “to find the best pathway forward” with current challenges, which include the closure of the West Seattle High-Rise Bridge. 

The bridge has been closed since March 23 for inspections and a determination whether cracks can be repaired. 

It doesn’t directly tie into our terminals but it’s a key part of the infrastructure network here and being taken out of service has reduced the capacity east-west … by as much as 60%. So that’s a real challenge for us,” Steinbrueck said.

Steinbrueck said he had been appointed to Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s community task force on the bridge and will present the NWSA’s need for multiple access points for the ports’ terminals.

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Kim Link-Wills.

Kim Link Wills

Senior Editor Kim Link-Wills has written about everything from agriculture as a reporter for Illinois Agri-News to zoology as editor of the Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine. Her work has garnered awards from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, the Georgia Institute of Technology and the Magazine Association of the Southeast. Prior to serving as managing editor of American Shipper, Kim spent more than four years with XPO Logistics.