Creative Problem Solving, Global Agriculture

Port Day!

Port day!  During our day at the ports in Norfolk, we had the pleasure of viewing trade in Virginia from two unique viewpoints: first by learning the ins and outs of the Port of Virginia as a whole, and second by walking through Perdue Agribusiness’ Deep Water Port and discussing the products that flow through their facility both as exports and imports.  It was interesting to view the port structure first through the entity which maintains the various terminals as a whole, and second through an individual company operating at the port.

To learn about the Port of Virginia, we sat down with Russell Held, the Vice President of Economic Development for the Port of Virginia, who walked us through the operation of the port, the flow of traffic, how it fits in through a national and global lens, and their plans for remaining competitive far (far!) into the future.  The Port of Virginia has the deepest channels on the East Coast, a very large rail infrastructure, multiple terminals, an inland port, and sophisticated plans for the future – all of which make it a large driver of trade and growth in the area.  For any company transporting goods, proximity to the Port of Virginia is very appealing, and as a result of the Port’s good reputation over 700 international companies have facilities in Virginia, and expansive warehousing from the likes of Walmart and Amazon are located in our state.  We move goods from the port to all of the East Coast and Mid West, and vice versa – their goods flow down into Virginia and out of the Port to countless countries worldwide.  It’s quite a logistical feat, and requires a large workforce.  According to the Port of Virginia, nearly 10% of Virginia’s population work in Port related jobs – including all the warehousing, trucking, and manufacturing of products.

An aerial view of the numerous Port of Virginia terminals.  From here, vessels have 2.5 hours to open sea.

In addition to answering our questions about the Port’s operations, Mr. Held also discussed their plans for maintaining competitiveness and relevancy over the next 50 years.  The Port has extensive plans for expansion and automation, and Mr. Held also commented that many things will change in the next 50 years in ways that cannot be predicted – what will be the changes in styles and sizes of companies requiring imports and exports?, what will be the changes in methods of transportation?, what will be the changes in the types or shapes of goods that are moved around, or in the materials themselves?  These are complicated questions, but are crucial to understand the ways in which trade will change over the next 5, 10, even 50 years.  The Port of Virginia has all this on their mind as they continue growing and moving forward.  (Note: they have a great, informative website, with much more information that I’ve listed above, and its worth checking out.)

The Port of Virginia in action.

Next, we met with Ray Keating, the Head International Merchandiser for Perdue Agribusiness.  In a nutshell, Perdue Agribusiness grows and trades grain, soy, feed, and oil products worldwide, with North American facilities up and down the East Coast and in the Midwest, and partners worldwide.  Their deep water port in Norfolk gives them direct access to large vessels, which allows them to move product in and out of the state and channel it to the proper location – all more efficiently, as they control nearly all of the transport.  The Deep Water Port also acts as storage and processing for their soy and grain before and after it spends time at sea.  Product is brought in by both truck and rail, organized, and then funneled to vessels which move it to sea.

Perdue Agribusiness trades a mind-boggling amount of soy and grain.  The direction of flow of these commodities is based on harvest times in both hemispheres as well as market prices and needs of individual countries.  Mr. Keating walked us through the basics of this, explaining who their largest markets were and why, and what changes in season and economics might shift the imports and exports, and it was clear even then that this type of trade is complicated and nuanced.

Unloading soybean via train.

We were lucky enough to get a tour of the facility, and to watch as they were loading a large  vessel with soybean.  Mr. Keating was generous with his time, as were many of the employees we met during our tour.

For me, at least, the big takeaway from these visits was (1) the scope of impact the Port of Virginia has on business in the state, and on future growth of business in the state, and (2) how important it is for the state of Virginia to nourish and promote a healthy, growing flow of products in and out of Norfolk.  It’s really quite amazing how much flows through our Port and ultimately through our railways and highways, and how that then impacts the way Virginia looks, feels, and operates.  It is also not everyday that you encounter a company focused not on a 5 or 10 year plan, but on a plan that reaches out half a century.

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