Port of New Orleans critical to growth of ag exports

As thousands of farmers congregated in New Orleans for Commodity Classic March 10-12, many of the products they produce literally floated by on the nearby Mississippi River, destined for markets around the world.

The Port of New Orleans (Port NOLA) handles roughly 60% of the nation’s grain and 20% of energy exports. And, as the gateway to the Gulf of Mexico, the port is crucial to future ag export growth after recovering from damage caused by Hurricane Ida last August.

“The Port of New Orleans is obviously the most critical port for grain and grain products,” Melissa Kessler, director of strategic initiatives and engagement for the U.S. Grains Council, told FarmWeek. “It’s always good to have this show here so producers get to see the infrastructure firsthand.”

The U.S. exports about 15% of corn. But when adding sorghum, barley and distillers’ grains to the mix, feed grain exports account for closer to 25% of sales, Kessler noted.

Meanwhile, nearly two-thirds of U.S. soybean exports exit the country through the Gulf, via the Mississippi River. About 20% of the remaining bean exports are shipped through the Pacific Northwest while another key portion travels via rail to Mexico, according to Brent Babb, regional director for Europe and Middle East/North Africa for the U.S. Soybean Export Council.

“New Orleans is still the main artery for exports of soybeans and soy meal,” he said.

Port NOLA connects 14,500 miles of waterways through the Mississippi River and its tributaries. After Hurricane Ida made landfall in August as a Category 4 storm, the port reopened nine days later. However, Ida caused extended outages at four of nine oil refineries and extended closures of grain terminals on the lower Mississippi.

Despite the challenges, the port still increased breakbulk and bulk volumes by 46% in 2021 compared to 2020 and moved 2.4 million short tons last year, up from 1.7 million in 2020. It also added container capacity and four new, 100-foot gauge container cranes are planned to be operational by this spring.

“Ending the year with such strong breakbulk volumes highlights Port NOLA’s diverse logistics solutions as we continue to position ourselves as an alternative gateway during supply chain disruptions,” said Brandy D. Christian, president and CEO of Port NOLA and the New Orleans Public Belt Railroad.

The U.S. exported a record volume of soy in 2020-21 (74.76 million tons valued at $34 billion) and remains very active in the market due to drought-induced production issues in South America.

“Soy exports normally move this time of year into South America,” Babb said. “But, while that crop is big, it’s not what the world expected. So, we’re competitive in all markets where normally this time of year it’s an uphill battle.”

Soybean demand also remains strong due to a shortage of vegetable oil worldwide. Russia and Ukraine typically export more than 70% of sunflower oil while palm oil production declined in Asia.

Elsewhere, Mexico currently is the top purchaser of U.S. corn so far this year after China was the largest market last year. The other top corn export markets are Japan, Colombia and South Korea.

“We have a lot of places really calling for grain,” Kessler added. “We’re here to service that demand.”

USDA raised this month’s estimates for corn and soybean exports by a combined 115 million bushels, which are now projected to total 4.59 billion bushels for the year.