World class port a boon for Virginia growers

The first products sent back to England from the fledging colony of Virginia included timber and tobacco. Today those remain some of the top exports from the Port of Virginia, one of the state’s largest economic engines and a major advantage for Virginia farmers and agribusiness.

“The Port of Virginia has some of the best cargo terminal facilities in the world,” said Jerry Bridges, executive director of the Virginia Port Authority. “We have 50-foot-deep water at the docks, on-rail delivery and are serviced by Norfolk Southern and CSX railroads, plus plenty of truck companies,” he told participants at the second annual International Agricultural Trade Workshop.

“The port gives us an advantage for the commodities we do ship,” said Spencer Neale, senior assistant director of commodity marketing for Virginia Farm Bureau Federation.

“It gives us a better opportunity to move those products for less cost and lower freight to the world or to East Coast markets. There are even farmers who drive their trucks right to the terminals to sell their grain to export companies. … There’s definitely a freight advantage.”

The Port of Virginia is second in East Coast shipping volume only to the Port of New York, and the port authority hopes to surpass New York when a major terminal expansion on Craney Island is completed in 2020. In 2009 agricultural products accounted for 20 percent of the port’s containerized tonnage and 15 percent of all tonnage, Bridges said. The top 10 exporting companies that used the port last year were Philip Morris, Scoular Grain, Perdue, Archer Daniels Midland, Touton USA, Universal Leaf Tobacco, RJ Reynolds Tobacco, Baillie Lumber Sales, Smithfield Packing and Tyson Foods Inc.

Port officials are working with Norfolk Southern and CSX to reduce truck shipping in the future. Currently 4 percent of the cargo entering the port leaves by barge, 30 percent leaves by rail and 66 percent leaves by truck. “We want to move more cargo by rail, for environmental issues, economics and less congestion on our highways,” Bridges said. “All three modes of transportation are important to us, but we’d like to see rail shipments increase to 50 percent.”

Norfolk Southern is working on a new “Heartland Corridor” that will allow rail shipments to be unloaded in Chicago two days after they leave the Port of Virginia, Bridges said, and CSX is developing a similar streamlined rail network for going up and down the East Coast.

The Port of Virginia also could benefit when the shipping locks in the Panama Canal are upgraded in 2014 or 2015, he said. That would shave two days off the shipping time from Asia to the East Coast via the current main route through the Suez Canal.

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