Most of us land-locked here in the U.S. have a hard time fathoming the size and scope of what ocean shipping is all about, and what it means to U.S. farmers. But show us a semi truck – or maybe even a river barge or rail car – and we can get our arms around size and volume pretty quickly.

Take the photo of the APL Scotland ship at the Port of Los Angeles (POLA) shown on the cover of the April issue. It’s a large container ship that holds about 5,500 20-ft. equivalent units (FEUs). They’re essentially the containers or semi trailers you see being hauled around our interstate system. The biggest ships hold 8,500-10,000 containers.

Imagine 10,000 of those steel boxes lashed together on a single ship sailing across rough seas to exotic ports in China, Japan and throughout Asia. By the way, there are as many containers below deck as you see above deck.

According to Jim MacLellan, director of trade services at POLA, it takes about two to three days to load or unload one of these monster vessels.

Although exports have been slow with the recession, at the peak in 2006, 15.7 million containers moved through both the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in both directions. The good economic news, he says, is that exports at POLA have been up 30% each of the last three months.

The two ports are the No. 1 volume ports in the U.S., and they hit a new record in 2007 of $349.4 billion in two-way trade. Agricultural exports are in the top 10 export products at POLA but still only account for about 5% of the trade; 60-65% of soybeans get exported out of the Gulf of Mexico, mostly in bulk.
More and more, however, customers want their commodities in containers, says Dwight Robinson, vice president of the Los Angeles Harbor Grain Terminal. “They just have more confidence in our products when they come from sealed containers,” he says.

In general, soybean exports keep growing and are still running 28% ahead of the year-earlier pace against USDA’s projection for an 11% increase, according to Brock Associates.

That’s thanks mostly to China, which purchased 23% of the entire U.S. crop last year, reports the U.S. Soybean Export Council. But don’t count out the potential growth for soybeans and soybean meal in India, too, whose population may surpass China’s by 2015.

For a look at how China and India impact corn and soybean growers here in the U.S., see “As China And India Grow….”

Moving commodities across oceans rather than across state lines continues to rise. And with a budding middle class around the world demanding a better diet, the future for exports looks bright.