Council, MSGA find hope in Halifax

Minnesota soybean growers are creating opportunities beyond the St. Lawrence Seaway.

In August, Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council (MSR&PC) directors visited Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, as part of the Specialty Soya and Grains Alliance’s (SSGA) See for Yourself Port of Halifax tour. Connected to more than 150 countries, the Port of Halifax boasts the potential to export Minnesota-grown soybeans to European countries through the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway System, increasing market access and increasing farmers’ bottom lines.

“The See for Yourself program gave us a firsthand look at the shipping opportunities available to the Eastern United States and Canada,” said MSR&PC Vice Chair Gail Donkers, who joined United Soybean Board Director Lawrence Sukalski and seven other Council board members on the tour. “Over the next 10-50 years, the Council is looking to expand markets out of Duluth and the Port of Halifax to provide more opportunities for Minnesota soybean farmers.”

Generating dialogue was the focus while in Halifax. Those conversations were kickstarted at the PIER – a center for port innovation, planning and strategy – where attendees heard from key players in the shipping and transportation industry. As a member-supported company, the PIER is a living lab for maritime transportation and logistics, dedicated to solving persistent sector challenges.

Director of Market Development Kim Nill presents on export opportunities and challenges during a workshop at the PIER center in Nova Scotia.

“We want to drive innovation for our supply chain and create efficiencies,” PIER Director David Thomas said. “These problems are larger than just one partner. We have to be able to work with our rail line, with our terminal operators, with our carriers.”

Along with Thomas, SSGA Executive Director Eric Wenberg; MSR&PC Director of Market Development Kim Nill; Minnesota Soybean Growers Association Executive Director Joe Smentek; Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway International Trade Officer Jazmine Jurkiewicz; Atlantic Grains Council Vice President Neil Campbell and Hapag-Lloyd Senior Manager of Port Operations Xavier Hamonic spoke with the group.

“SSGA is focused on the logistics and the business behind this trade,” Wenberg said. “As a learning and listening organization, we’re going to have conversations and figure out what to do next. Shipping and transportation is the backbone of what we do.”

In marketing year 2021/2022, the United States exported more than 2 billion bushels of soybeans, yet only about two percent left the country via the St. Lawrence Seaway. Why? Smentek posed another question.  

“Why not Duluth?” said Smentek, who’s toured Europe, North Africa and Asia in efforts to knock down trade barriers on behalf of Minnesota Soybean. “We’ve had really great conversations with feed mills in Morocco. They want soy from Minnesota because they know the quality of the product that we have. There is a lot of opportunity for bulk shipments, especially port to port.”

If removing trade barriers was easy, everyone would be doing it. That’s why the Council and MSGA are engaging in what Smentek calls “sweat equity” projects.

“There are still barriers,” Smentek said. “The biggest one right now is economics. It is cheaper out of Houston and Norfolk. Highway H20 is working on a study to say, ‘Here is the cost that goes into the St. Lawrence Seaway and here’s the cost that goes into Houston.’”

Furthermore, exporting out of Houston is cheaper because the state of Texas pays most of the costs associated with shipping and transportation.

“The question is, what fees can we tap into?” Smentek said. “If there is a pilot fee on a dock, can the state of Minnesota pay for the pilot to come into Duluth? Can we start doing those things? But those questions haven’t even been asked yet. So that’s really what this effort is about.”

Luckily, Minnesota soybean farmers don’t shy away from addressing challenges.  

“It’s nice to have farmers – the experts – in the room to ask those questions,” Smentek said.

As a Halifax See for Yourself sponsor, MSR&PC continues wisely investing checkoff dollars in ventures that illustrate and emphasize the importance of increasing demand for Minnesota soybeans.

“In the meantime, it’s a good exercise for the checkoff to make sure that there is a plan,” Smentek said. “And if you do have people that want U.S. soy like they do in Morocco, that they have a cheap, easy way to get it there and to get it there from Minnesota and Wisconsin.”

 While there is still work to be done before the Port of Halifax becomes a hub for Upper Midwest grown soybeans, Minnesota soybean checkoff investments are doing their part to make the stars align.

“We got to meet some partners over there who are willing and able and excited to work with us,” Council Chair Tom Frisch said. “It’s going to take some more time and work, but the facilities are definitely capable, whether we go there by boat or rail, both loading or unloading. There are some just pieces we have to put together before that can happen.”

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