Port of Duluth celebrates historic shipment
With 200 containers of beans loaded and bound for four European countries, the Twin Ports officially enters the cargo container market.
DULUTH — The first container cargoes bound for European markets are ticketed to leave the local port this weekend, when 200 containers loaded with bulk sacks of kidney beans depart aboard the ship Nunalik.
The beans are headed for 10 locations in four different countries across the Atlantic Ocean, including Germany, Italy, France and Hungary.
“This is very satisfying to have this come together,” said Deb DeLuca, executive director for the Duluth Seaway Port Authority. “This is an opportunity to demonstrate how it can work.”
The Port Authority announced last fall that it had built the infrastructure and cleared regulatory hurdles to both accept imports and deliver exports via container cargoes.
The Port Authority, working with dock operator Lake Superior Warehousing Co. as Duluth Cargo Connect, billed its service as an alternative to supply chain bottlenecks on the U.S. coasts.
“This is a saving grace for us,” said Cindy Brown, president of Chippewa Valley Bean Co., of Menomonie, Wisconsin. “This opens a horizon for us to bring products into Europe. The sky’s the limit.”
Brown, port officials and industry executives met the media Friday at the Clure Public Marine Terminal on Rice’s Point to discuss the first-of-its-kind shipment.
Historically, the port of Duluth-Superior has been utilized to haul bulk cargoes such as taconite iron ore, coal, grain, salt and limestone. Any containers through the port featured parts to accompany project cargoes such as wind blades and turbines.
But since the start of the pandemic in 2020, congestion has overtaken coastal ports. Supply chains have been further disrupted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Brown told the story of how one of her company’s containers sat at an Eastern port last year from February until it was finally loaded onto a ship in June.
“The supply chain basically fell apart,” Brown said, before praising the alternative of using Duluth and the Great Lakes.
“What this has done is it’s given us more control over our product and helped us do a better job with our customer service,” she added.
The kidney beans being shipped were harvested 80% from Minnesota farms and 20% from Wisconsin.
“We have such a jewel in our backyard in Duluth,” said Wes Sanda, managing partner of Realm5, a Lincoln, Nebraska firm that devises solutions for agricultural shipments.
The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway has long been an afterthought for container shipments. Until now, only Cleveland, on the United States side of the Great Lakes, had the capability to deal in container cargoes. The aversion to the Great Lakes was in large part due to the fact that the shipping season closes from mid-January to late-March to accommodate ice buildup and maintenance on the Soo Locks.
But desperate times have caused industries to rethink shipping practices.
“We’re happy for this opportunity to show this farther western part of the Great Lakes that container traffic on the water is actually the way to go,” said Claus Sorensen, vice president for Spleithoff Cleveland, the ship owner which commissioned the Nunalik.
The Netherlands-flagged Nunalik came to the Twin Ports carrying wind turbine parts. Those heavy, shrink-wrapped parts were being unloaded as industry officials celebrated the first container shipment, which were scheduled to load Friday afternoon.
For Jonathan Lamb, president of Lake Superior Warehousing, it’s been a long journey. The company and Port Authority have been working for years to build up the Clure terminal to its current capabilities. He noted working closely, too, with the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Customs and Border Protection to make container cargoes a reality.
“There is a tremendous opportunity here,” Lamb said. “The market is looking for alternatives in a world that has lots of challenges from the standpoint of logistics and supply chain.”
Lamb added that he doesn’t expect weekly container shipments. The next one could come in six or eight weeks, he said. He’s been attending more industry conferences than usual in an effort to drum up new business.
“There are already signs this can turn into something a little bit more regular, instead of a one-off,” Lamb said. “If things go right on this, it’s going to draw more traffic to it.”
Nunalik departs Saturday and is expected to make the trip to Europe in roughly 14 days.