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More rail options coming: State signs agreement with Port of Vancouver Wednesday

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FARGO — Under a new deal signed Wednesday, North Dakota’s agricultural producers will have more options for rail shipping — a growing concern in a state where heavy oil traffic on rails has caused delays for other freight shipments.

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Through the agreement, the Port of Vancouver, which is the third largest port in the state of Washington, will send railcars to North Dakota delivering lumber, paper, cement, fertilizer, energy supplies and other goods. Such cargo is already moving east from the Pacific Northwest, said Doug Goehring, North Dakota’s agriculture commissioner.

After they are unloaded, the cars will be filled with North Dakota products — soybeans, lentils, flax, buckwheat, dry beans and other crops, both bulk and specialty — that will be shipped west, either for distribution or international export.

“We cannot store our way to prosperity,” Goehring said, referring to the fact that North Dakota’s agricultural products haven’t been able to travel by rail at the rate they’re being produced.

Some say crops have taken a backseat to oil, which primarily uses rail to ship out of state.

The partnership will begin with two shuttle trains a month and work its way up to four, said Todd Coleman, CEO of the Port of Vancouver USA.

Goehring and Coleman signed a memorandum of understanding Wednesday and said they hope to start in a couple of weeks, around mid-September.

Goehring said the service will be dedicated to moving products out of the Upper Midwest — and moving more than the three biggest crops.

“We produce more than just corn, soybeans and wheat, and that isn’t to say that those aren’t vitally important … but we also grow almost 50 different commodities commercially in North Dakota,” he said.

There are 392 elevators in the state, and all could be affected by the new partnership, Coleman said.

Eighty-two percent of grain and oilseed products are moved by rail, Goehring noted.

Not everyone is sold on the plan.

Bob Sinner, a partner with the Sinner Bros. & Bresnahan agribusiness, was at the announcement Wednesday to express his concern regarding what the proposal means for identity-preserved grains, a specialty crop.

The partnership’s plan would move IP grains via boxcar from North Dakota to the Pacific Northwest, then transload them into containers at the port. Sinner sees that as a food safety concern.

“Our customers, worldwide, want us to load containers at our facilities and ship them without anyone touching the product,” he said. “Bringing boxcars of products into the state and then transloading IP grain products onto boxcars is not of interest to us.”

Goehring assured Sinner the boxcars would be sterilized, and Coleman said the Port of Vancouver has two facilities that are certified for food-grade processing.

Another question was whether the new trains would still depend on BNSF Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway tracks, where recent grain delivery backlogs have drawn national attention.

The answer is they would.

But Coleman said it’s not track time so much as boxcars that are in high demand. Previously, trains for agriculture shipments were unreliable, he said, and had to be sourced from the marketplace.

“Now, we’re gonna have a dedicated rail service,” he said, with 180 boxcars that exist solely to return to the West Coast bearing North Dakota products.

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Grace Lyden
Grace Lyden is the higher education reporter for The Forum. Previously, she interned at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, after graduating from the Missouri School of Journalism in 2014. She welcomes story ideas via email or phone. Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to letters@forumcomm.com.
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