Oregon agriculture companies ask for federal intervention in West Coast longshore-port dispute

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Oregon food and forestry products are shipped all over the world to sustain the agriculture industry. Hundreds of Oregon agriculture companies signed a letter asking for federal intervention in the longshore worker dispute with West Coast port operators. (Molly Harbarger/The Oregonian)

Oregon agriculture companies want the state’s Congressional delegation to push port operators and the longshore workers union to reach an agreement on a new contract.

The Agriculture Transportation Coalition, a lobbying group based in Washington, D.C., sent a letter Thursday to the Oregon’s federal legislators asking them to be more vocal to the port operators association and the longshore union about the harm they are causing and to press President Barack Obama to intervene.

The letter comes two days after the Port of Portland’s container terminal lost nearly 80 percent of its business when Hanjin Shipping Co. withdrew its service. The container terminal handles most of the agricultural products moving between Portland and Oregon’s biggest trade partners in Asia. Hanjin was the only shipping line that traveled to China, Korea and other large Asian consumers of Oregon-grown food.

Port of Portland Executive Director Bill Wyatt said Wednesday that Hanjin likely won’t be replaced for at least two years.

“It is important that you recognize that there is nothing that we produce in Oregon in agriculture and forest products that cannot be sourced from somewhere else,” the letter said. “We can grow and process the best in the world, but if we cannot deliver our Oregon products affordably and dependably, the foreign customers will go somewhere else and may never return.”

Agricultural products — fresh vegetables, hazelnuts, frozen french fries — are a huge part of Oregon’s export economy. As a group, agricultural products come second only to computer and electronics. Wood products also rank in the top 10.

In Oregon, years of tension between the port operator, ICTSI Oregon, and the local longshore union members was layered on top of congestion at 29 West Coast ports during contract negotiations.

A Hanjin Copenhagen ship sat in port four days waiting to be unloaded, while another Hanjin ship steamed up the Columbia River. Portland is an inland port, which makes it more expensive than Seattle or Long Beach, California, to access. However, it served as a vital link for shipping companies and farmers in Oregon, southern and eastern Washington and western Idaho.

State officials worry that now farmers and other small and medium-sized companies that depend on trade with Asia will spend money on trucking and air freight that could have been used to hire more people, invest in land or machinery or expand their businesses.

“This creates tremendous new burdens on all Oregon agriculture and forest products explorers who must now transport all the way up to Puget Sound ports, at considerable cost and delay,” said the letter that included dozens of family farms, insurance companies, manufacturers and industry groups as signatories.

Read the original article on Oregon Live here.