There’s a lot of history at the port of Duluth-Superior.

More than 400 million tons of grain have been shipped through the port since they started keeping records in 1871.

Kate Ferguson, director of trade and business development for the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, which supports both sides of the border, said records indicate that the port in 1985 shipped 3 million tons of ag products, of which about 65% was for export.

The product mix was diverse — sunflower seed, corn, wheat, millet, barley and beans.

In 2019, the port loaded 1.5 million tons of ag products, of which 73% was for export. Today, the products are primarily wheat, some canola as well as sugar beet pellets. Europe and northern Africa are likely destinations.

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Ron Johnson, who retired in 2016 as Port Authority trade development director, notes that the port in the 1940s had been dubbed the “Pride of the Inland Seas,” and that the Great Lakes were seen as one of America’s national security gems, and could be again. It is still the system’s No. 1 port by tonnage and one of the nation’s top 20.

“Many overseas markets prefer smaller ships because of port constraints,” Ferguson says. The Great Lakes system is a “truly binational” effort between the U.S. and Canada.

“We market the system as ‘Highway H2O,’” Ferguson said of U.S. and Canadian management entities. The 2,300-mile system offers shippers “direct access to the commercial, industrial and agricultural heartland of North America” — including 40 ports with key intermodal connections.

There have been recent innovations, including “hands-free mooring,” of ships through key points, eliminating some of the mechanical requirements that some vessels weren’t equipped for. In the past, the seaway could accommodate only a small percentage of the world’s ships of the smaller “handymax” size, but now can handle the majority.

The BBC Louise lays at anchor past the south breakwall of the Duluth Entry on Sept. 18, 2019, waiting to enter the Twin Ports to receive a load of grain. (File / News Tribune)
The BBC Louise lays at anchor past the south breakwall of the Duluth Entry on Sept. 18, 2019, waiting to enter the Twin Ports to receive a load of grain. (File / News Tribune)

Always changing

Duluth first exceeded 1 million tons of grain in 1891 and quickly hit 2 million tons in 1898. Milestones came with record shipments in 1944 and 1945.

Shipping jumped after 1959 when the St. Lawrence Seaway opened, and the port handled 3 million tons. The first oceangoing vessel arrived at the Peavey Grain Elevator, to load oats, and then barley from Cargill.

In 1960, Charles B. Green, then-vice president of the F.H. Peavey & Co. and general manager of the Globe Elevator division, said Duluth then was lesser only to 12-month ports at New Orleans.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Duluth port was a major player in Public Law-480 “Food for Peace” shipments to the world, which served humanitarian aid but was criticized as being too heavily about surplus liquidation.

Port movements increased sharply after the great Russian “great grain robbery” in July 1972 — where the Soviet government suddenly and unexpectedly increased grain imports, leading to a decade of high prices and production. The port hit its all-time record of nearly 10.2 million tons in 1978.

Totals have declined since then. Ag shipments peaked at 6.36 million tons per year in the 1970s, and then declined 13% to 5.5 million tons per year in the 1980s. Then it dropped by 15% to 4.7 million tons in the 1990s; followed by declines of 38% to 2.9 million tons from 2000 to 2009; and another 48% drop to 1.5 million tons per year from 2010 to 2019.

Among the reasons for the decline in grain shipments are foreign competitors on wheat production, including the Russians and European countries. European buyers eschew genetically-modified organism grains. Railroads have become sharper, moving high-volume rail transportation in “unit” trains and “shuttle” train rates to ports in the Pacific Northwest, and the Gulf Coast.

The 656-foot Federal Bering from the Marshall Islands loads grain at the CHS dock in Superior, Wisconsin, on Dec. 15, 2015. (File / News Tribune)
The 656-foot Federal Bering from the Marshall Islands loads grain at the CHS dock in Superior, Wisconsin, on Dec. 15, 2015. (File / News Tribune)

Tomorrow’s promise

Today, up to 900 vessels and 35 million tons of cargo move through the port of Duluth-Superior every year — both in and out. Duluth-Superior is still the Great Lakes’ largest-tonnage port and one of the nation’s top 20. It supports 8,000 jobs and contributes $1.4 billion in business revenue to the regional economy.

In 2019, grain accounted for 4.4% of the tonnage total at Duluth.

Iron ore is the port’s tonnage leader, at 59% of total shipments in 2019. Other movements are coal, 24%, as well as limestone and salt.

The port also handles so-called “break bulk” (general cargo too big for a shipping container) and ”heavy-lift cargo,” including wind energy equipment and cargoes for industrial projects. (In 2019, Duluth Cargo Connect set a single-season record 306,000 freight tons of wind energy components to the Clure Public Marine Terminal.)

In the current shipping season, through June 30, Ferguson said the grain tonnage through the ports was 21.8% above the five-season average for the period, and 5.8% more than the same period in the 2019 shipping seasons. The 2019 wheat shipments was 20% over 2018, and a 12% improvement on the five-season average.

Brian Sorenson is a program director for the Northern Crops Institute in Fargo, North Dakota, a multi-state entity in the business of promoting northern-grown crops to the world.

“It’s a very important port for our durum exports, but as things go along, there is always market shifting,” Sorenson said. “Over time, we could see an increase in throughput at the port for our crops out of this region.”

The northern Great Plains states are still strong in wheat exports, but now most wheat goes through Pacific Northwest ports — often to eastern Asian markets. China has bought little wheat from the U.S. in the past few years, so recent tariff trade disputes have done little to the wheat market.

Intermodal action

More of the port’s facilities are used for “rail-to-rail transfer,” where the grain comes into their facilities, goes into storage and later is moved by rail elsewhere in the country.

Many markets are demanding identity-preserved, non-GMO products, Ferguson said.

In 2017, Canadian National Railway opened its CN Duluth Intermodal Terminal at Duluth. The facility is one of the fixtures of the Clure Public Marine Terminal, a partnership between the seaway authority and Lake Superior Warehousing.

The intermodal terminal connects the region to containerized imports and exports via a high-capacity rail network that spans the continent, including the East, West and Gulf Coast ports.

This partnership between CN and Duluth Cargo Connect opens up a congestion-free logistics supply chain that moves freight by its shortest, most economical path.

“Intermodal is young, it’s growing,” Ferguson said, noting they’re working with agricultural producers and shippers in a “catchment area” — a trade area — of North Dakota, northeast South Dakota, northern Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.

“We can now access those specialty crop producers, and transfer small lots of grain to international markets,” Ferguson said.