Port of Eastport ships cattle to Turkey; prepares RFPs for conveyor and bulk yard
By Kathryn Buxton
When a news brief appeared in the Bangor Daily News, reporting the Port of Eastport had received a temporary exemption from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to ship livestock, it sparked interest in Maine’s transportation and business circles. The port has not shipped livestock in recent memory, and is much better known for moving forest products – mostly hardwood pulp produced at the Domtar mill in Baileyville.
Since the mill shut down temporarily in early 2009 because of the recession and decreased demand, the port has been aggressively marketing its assets to shippers in an effort to diversify its business. One of those shippers that heard the call was Texas-based Sexing Technologies, a genetics company specializing in the collection and sexing of beef cattle semen.
The news that the shipper would be using Eastport to move 470 pregnant cattle to Eastern Europe is one signal that the port’s marketing efforts may be paying off. After suffering a drop in freight traffic in 2009, the port is expecting to close out 2010 at record levels, according to Chris Gardner, executive director of the Port of Eastport.
“We’re projecting a record year eclipsing our previous tonnage totals in the 370,000 ton range. Between Domtar’s existing business and the introduction of the cattle project, 2010 could certainly be one of our best,” said Gardner.
Branching out into new markets is at the core of a planned port expansion. The port hopes to soon break ground on construction of a conveyor and bulk yard. The expansion, estimated to cost between $6.5 million and $8.5 million, is being funded in part with $2 million in TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grant funding and $4.5 million from the recent bond issue passed by voters in June. The port plans to provide the remainder of the funding, which it hopes to borrow at municipal rates.
The facility will serve Maine firms shipping bulk commodity items such as wood pellets and chips, primarily to markets in Europe. That is where the demand is, Gardner said.
The key, according to Gardner, is being big and efficient. Because the margins on pellets and chips are low, “every time you touch them, you have to be extremely efficient,” said Gardner.
The new facility will include an eight-acre storage yard. (If demand grows, the port has the option of expanding to an adjacent 12-acre parcel). It also has the capacity to load ships that Gardner describes as “floating boxes” with wood pellets at a rate of 1,000 tons per hour and wood chips at 700 tons per hour.
Gardner has a noticeable hint of urgency in his voice when he talks about the pending project. “We’ve got customers pushing us to get this done,” said Gardner. He said the port hopes to complete construction in the third quarter of 2011.
The project has already suffered one setback. It was put out to bid when the port had to postpone the process to comply with TIGER grant requirements. The port has been working with the state and federal governments and plans to reopen the bidding process later this fall, and Gardner hopes to break ground before year’s end.
Making it work
Despite the temporary setback, there is a feeling the port will do all it can to make its venture into new markets work – whether it’s moving livestock or forest products. Case in point is this recent cattle shipments.
Sexing Technologies wanted to ship dairy cows to Turkey and approached port officials and the local ships’ agent, Federal Marine Terminals (FMT). The Texas-based company planned to gather the livestock from farms throughout New England (and as far away as Wisconsin) at Roebuck Farm in Turner. Then they would ship the dairy cows in two shipments from Eastport.
The livestock shipments required an exemption from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that normally requires a special permit to ship livestock. It also required considerable preparation. Sexing Technologies arranged for 35 specially outfitted containers for the cattle to be shipped to the port to transport the cattle and four truckloads of feed and bedding for the journey. A network of temporary chutes to move the cattle onto the cargo freighter had to be constructed. Then there were the odds and ends. A local electrician and plumber and some other craftsmen were called in to make modifications to the containers. FMT stevedores also helped load the cattle, working outside the chutes and assisting cow handlers brought in by Sexing Technologies to keep the animals moving.
The first shipment of cattle went off without a hitch in mid-July, according to Port of Eastport Director Chris Gardner. A second shipment left from Eastport in late September. Out of 470 dairy cows that boarded the freighter Artisgracht in Eastport, all 470 arrived, as well as two calves that were born en route.
“Hats off to Federal Marine Terminals. They pulled off a nearly flawless operation and the USDA ground inspector gave us rave reviews,” said Gardner.
Optimism in the air
There is definitely a feeling in Eastport that there is potential for diversification and growth. Skip Rogers of FMT said he is fairly certain Eastport will see more livestock shipments in the near future and has already heard from a company interested in shipping cattle to Romania.
He also sees the investment in the new bulk yard and conveyor as a positive step that has generated a buzz around the port. He calls the pellet/wood chip export market “our next niche” and expects the facility to “get used pretty quickly.”
“It’s going to be too fine a facility to sit here idle,” said Rogers. “This is our most logical option given our location and the resources we have around us.”
He also firmly believes that the investment of federal, state and local funding will pay off. “We need to diversify this port and be better positioned and the best way to do that is build on the resources that we do have.”