U.S. grain shipments up 39% through the Seaway

Heavy lift in Duluth, Summer 2021

U.S. grain shipments via the Great Lakes-Seaway system totaled 312,000 metric tons from March 22-May 31, up 39% compared to the same period in 2021, according to a statement issued June 21 from the Chamber of Marine Commerce.  

Much of the increase is due to exports of corn and soybeans out of the Port of Toledo and some new trade starting at the port of Oswego this shipping season.  

The rise in shipments, which are predominantly heading to Europe and North Africa, are in part due to shifting global grain trading patterns as the conflict between Russia and the Ukraine — both major grain exporters — continues. 

The positive numbers come as new investments in grain terminals at U.S. Great Lakes ports continue to be announced. Earlier this month, the Hansen-Mueller Company finalized the acquisition of General Mills Elevator A in Duluth, Minnesota, completing a deal that will bring the grain-handling facility back into active service. Nebraska-based Hansen-Mueller plans to bring the facility back into operation in time for the 2022 harvest season. The facility will import and export primarily small grains grown in the United States and Canada to domestic and foreign destinations.  Construction is also going strong at the future site of Port Milwaukee's new DeLong agricultural maritime export facility, expected to open in 2023.  The Andersons Inc. also leased a grain storage facility at the Port of Oswego in 2021, with their first shipment by vessel starting this season.

Overall, activity through the St. Lawrence Seaway improved in May after a slower start due to ice conditions in Lake Superior. Total cargo tonnage shipments (from March 22 to May 31) via the St. Lawrence Seaway totaled 7.6 million metric tons, down 10.8% compared to 2021 but gaining ground in comparison to April. Other system-wide highlights include an increase in shipments of project cargo such as wind turbines, road salt to replenish winter reserves and coke exports to Europe for cement production.  

Buoyed by the season’s first maritime container exports and the first inbound cement shipment of 2022, total tonnage for the Port of Duluth-Superior topped 5.7 million short tons through May 31. That cumulative total still trails the five-season average by 18.5%, but May’s total float (3.2 million tons) represented a 31.8% increase over a very slow April 2022.

Kidney beans made May’s biggest headlines, with 4,500 tons sailing in containers to Europe from Duluth’s Clure Public Marine Terminal. This marked the port’s re-entry into the maritime container business, and hopefully, the first of many such shipments for Duluth Cargo Connect.

“Greater cargo diversity and more multimodal shipping options make our port and our region more vibrant,” said Deb DeLuca, executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, in the official statement. “It’s a team effort to create these kinds of solutions for helping regional producers and manufacturers compete in the global marketplace, and we’re excited to see those efforts coming to fruition.”

Beyond the very broad general cargo category, iron ore made the biggest gains in May, with 1.9 million tons transiting the port. This eclipsed the April 2022 figure by more than 30%, but the season-to-date total still lags the five-season average by almost 24%. Coal and petcoke also moved briskly in May, topping 773,000 tons for the month and 1.4 million tons season-to-date.  

“Total tonnage climbed 8% closer to the five-season average in May. It was good to see that early-season deficit diminish, but it continues to be a slower-than-normal start to the shipping season,” said DeLuca. “We’re hopeful that global supply chains normalize, which would also help normalize Duluth-Superior tonnage totals, but these continue to be unusual times. With that said, we’re pleased to see containerized cargo moving now, plus the season’s first shipments of wind energy components, so that cargo diversity continues to be a benefit.”