Congress wants to facilitate the export of dried beans from Michigan

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By JACK FALINSKY
Capital News Service

LANSING—Limited. Unfair. Unreliable.

Some in Michigan’s dried bean industry may use these words to describe the process of obtaining the shipping containers needed to export their beans out of state.

The problems faced by bean shippers are the unavailability of shipping containers to export the goods and the lack of communication between shipping carriers regarding the location of containers.

Shippers and other industry experts attribute some of their problems to allegedly unethical practices by shipping carriers, which include making a quick profit by sending empty containers back to Asia to have them filled and shipped back quickly – rather than taking the time to send them across the country to be filled out and exported.

The US Senate passed a bill in March that could simplify exporting and transform the difficult narrative described by shippers when trying to acquire containers.

The Ocean Shipping Reform Act of 2022 was introduced by Democratic U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and co-sponsored by Democratic U.S. Senators of Michigan Debbie Stabenow of Lansing and Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township.

It would prohibit shipping carriers from unreasonably denying cargo space for exports when it is available, require carriers to report import and export tonnage by vessel to the Federal Maritime Commission, which regulates maritime commerce, and would authorize the commission to investigate scenarios when shippers hang on to containers for too long.

The legislation “takes basic, common-sense steps to address problems created by large shipping companies,” said Chuck Lippstreu, president of the East Lansing-based Michigan Agri-Business Association.

For Michigan’s dry bean industry, exporting is essential.

Joe Cramer, executive director of the Frankenmuth-based Michigan Bean Commission, said the state exports about a third of its dried beans. He said Michigan is the second-largest producer of dried beans in the country, behind only North Dakota. It is the country’s leader in the production of black beans.

Assorted dried beans. Michigan harvested more than 500 million pounds of dry beans from 1,085 farms in 2017.

According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, Michigan harvested more than 500 million pounds of dry beans in 2017, from 1,085 farms with 225,334 acres dedicated to beans.

Seventy-five percent of dry beans are produced in the Thumb region, including Huron, Tuscola, Sanilac and Bay counties, according to Cramer.

Black beans are exported to Central America and South America. White beans are exported to the UK, Ireland and Italy. Kidney beans are exported to Spain. And if the kidney beans are exported, Cramer said, they go to islands like Jamaica and the Dominican Republic.

But if bean shippers can’t receive containers, Cramer said they’re stuck.

“If you had a week and you needed 50 containers for that week, you might have four,” he said. “And so next week you need another 50, plus the 46 you didn’t get, and you still have four.

“It’s only getting worse, and it’s really hard to catch up.”

And if the shippers are blocked, the production of dried beans by the farmers stops.

It’s like the domino effect, Cramer said. “If you can’t get rid of (the beans), you don’t need the next batch to come to you.”

Lippstreu said part of the reason shippers struggle to secure containers is that there is a lack of transparency between shipping carriers.

Instead of transporting empty containers that lie along the west coast of the United States to shippers in Michigan who need them, Lippstreu said ocean carriers send them to Asia to be reloaded and returned, thus speeding up the carrier turnaround time.

“The major shipping companies have determined that this might be good for their business, but it’s definitely not good for Michigan agriculture,” he said.

In response to the bill, the World Shipping Council, an industry group, released a statement saying the suggestion that shipping lines are solely responsible for backlogs in the supply chain is “simply wrong”.

The council said the legislation was steeped in “fundamental injustice” and “breaches of due process”.

In March, the Federal Maritime Commission announced that it was expanding its audit program to assess how shipping carriers serve US exporters.

Daniel Maffei, chairman of the commission, said in a statement that US exporters have the same right as importers to services provided by ocean carriers.

“U.S. exporters deserve access to shipping to sell in international markets just as much as foreign sellers have access to U.S. markets,” Maffei said. “The commission’s expanded shipping carrier audit program will provide greater visibility into which shipping carriers are working well with U.S. exporters and, more importantly, which shipping carriers can and should be doing more to support exporters.

“That said, the commission is committed to building a shipping system that serves exporters and importers alike. I will not rule out any action within the bounds of the law that helps us achieve this goal.

Caleb Sundblad is director of marketing for Cooperative Elevator Co., headquartered in Pigeon, Huron County.

It is a full-service cooperative serving about 1,100 members, according to Sundblad, with services that include crop protection, grain marketing, quality assurance and energy sales.

What sets Cooperative Elevator apart from other co-ops, Sundblad said, is its dry bean team. He said the division is one of the largest handlers of beans in the country.

He said when his company is denied containers, it’s usually for one of two reasons: the containers aren’t in the ports where they’re needed, or there isn’t enough capacity. to transport containers from its facilities to ports.

Lippstreu said if Michigan can’t ship its food products to other countries, other suppliers elsewhere will step up.

“We are proud of our role as a state that helps feed the world and provides food to countries on multiple continents, but if we are unable to maintain this export footprint, we may lose these markets,” he said.

“We are in a global economy. If Michigan can’t meet the demand for food, others will. »

The bill, which had already passed the US House with bipartisan support from Michigan lawmakers, was sent back to the House for further consideration.

Representatives from Michigan who co-sponsored the bill are Democrats Daniel Kildee of Flint and Haley Stevens of Rochester Hills, and Republicans Fred Upton of St. Joseph, Peter Meijer of Grand Rapids, Lisa McClain of Romeo, Bill Huizenga of Zeeland , John Moolenaar of Midland and Jack Bergman of Watersmeet.

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