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Restoring the Lower Snake River

ELAINE WILLIAMS of the Tribune | Friday, May 29, 2015

The infrastructure is available to ship dried peas and lentils by rail from the Port of Lewiston, but processors and railroad companies still need to work through some complicated logistics.

That possibility was the closest thing to a solution that emerged Thursday during a 90-minute meeting of about 100 farmers, shippers, transportation officials and representatives of agricultural businesses and associations.

The group gathered at a Port of Lewiston warehouse next to a dock idled for seven weeks by the withdrawal of the last container carrier regularly calling on the Port of Portland. The meeting was sponsored by the Latah County and Nez Perce County farm bureaus.

For decades, farmers have relied on container shipping to get dried peas and lentils down the Snake and Columbia rivers to Portland, where they were transferred to larger ocean-going vessels.

Between the issues with union labor and the introduction of some vessels too large to navigate the channel between the mouth of the Columbia River and Portland, nothing is likely to change soon, said Mike Hajny, vice president of Westco International, an Ellensburg, Wash., hay exporter. "Anybody who ships out of the Port of Portland has been dealt a new deck of cards. ... The Port of Portland ... is drying up. It's run its course."

Finding an alternative transportation route is proving to be difficult. Burlington Northern Sante Fe has about 300 rail box cars available west of the Mississippi, said Roger Hsieh, Pacific Northwest ombudsman for agricultural products for BNSF in Vancouver, Wash.

One issue, however, is that once those cars reach the Puget Sound ports, little capacity is available to transfer the commodities into containers to be shipped overseas, Hsieh said.

What's more, box cars aren't ideal since dried peas and lentils would have to be handled four times before they left the United States instead of just being put into a container at the processing plant, said Kendrick's Brocke and Sons Vice President Bert Brocke.

Brocke would have to put its products on a truck in Kendrick and truck them to Lewiston where they would be put in a box car. That box car would get unloaded at Puget Sound so its contents could go to a warehouse before finally being put into a container to cross the ocean.

Plus, this area would have to compete with other growing regions like Montana for cars and typically demand is concentrated into the months just after harvest, Hsieh said. "It's really a multi-faceted challenge we face."

Another possibility could involve selling to emerging domestic markets in human and pet food that would be reached by truck, Hsieh said. "It's dispersed all over the place."

Questions about trucking were raised at the meeting, but no one from the industry spoke up. Nationally the trucking industry is facing a shortage of drivers as new regulations lower the amount of hours drivers can log in certain periods of time and as it struggles to recruit new drivers.

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