The container yard at the Port of Lewiston, Idaho, looks forgotten. A tall crane next to the Clearwater River sits parked and unused.
Off in the distance, two orange metal shipping containers lie side-by-side, surrounded by asphalt in every direction.
“Last year, there would’ve been probably 250 containers here,” says David Doeringsfeld, the port’s general manager.
Farmers from North Dakota, Montana, Idaho and eastern Washington all depended on this port — the most inland port on the West Coast — to get some of their crops to market. But this year, many are paying a lot more to transport their lentils, chickpeas and beans to customers in Asia and South America.
These farmers typically put the legumes on containers that travel by barge from the Port of Lewiston to the Port of Portland, Ore. But a labor dispute at Portland means they’ve had to stop. Now those farmers are paying the price.
Legumes aren’t the most important crop in this region — soft, white wheat is. But legumes make up about a third of what farmers grow, and most of that crop is exported.
“Peas and lentils are all shipped in 100-pound sacks that are palletized, shrink wrapped, put in containers and sent out,” Doeringsfeld says.
But almost all of Portland’s container fleet left this spring after a long labor dispute between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the company that employs them.
Doeringsfeld says that’s had ripples all the way out here.
“When steamship lines quit calling, that ended all container on barge service at the Port of Lewiston,” he says.
And that’s where farmers are taking a hit.
“The Port of Portland was a very cost effective way to ship into the international markets,” says Peter Klaiber, vice president of marketing for the USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council in Moscow, Idaho.
“By using the barge system down the river, we were able to move a lot of tonnage at a low price, move the containers onto ocean going ships and get them out to the export markets that we serve,” he says.
Those peas and lentils are now shipping out of the Ports of Tacoma and Seattle, but they have to travel there by truck.
“That increases the costs significantly,” Klaiber says — about $1,000 more per container than barging.
“Because we are operating within a global market, we simply can’t raise our prices to the buyers because they have alternatives,” he says.
“So where does that additional cost get recorded?” Klaiber says. “It means that the return to the farmer has to be less.”
Like most farmers around here, Chad Heimgartner’s chickpeas are being trucked to Puget Sound. He says the labor dispute at the Port of Portland has been frustrating and ultimately will cost him money.
“I don’t think they have any idea what they’re doing to us out here growing the crops,” he says.
He wants dockworkers and their company to work out the labor issues that led to the loss of container service.
“They’re just looking out for themselves,” he says.”It’s pretty selfish on their part and it leaves a pretty bitter taste in everybody’s mouth out here.”
Farmers agree the long-term fix is for container service to one-day return to the Port of Portland. But that may take a long time — years, maybe. So for now, these farmers will have to adjust to smaller paychecks.