The USDA will fund 60% of the cost of adding a new 25-acre container yard at the Port of Oakland while also subsidizing ag exporters' shipping expenses, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says the Biden administration wants to repeat the project elsewhere.

“The hope and the goal is that we’re going to be able to expand this opportunity in other ports along the coast in the hope that eventually we see a more free-flowing effort on the export side,” Vilsack said Monday at an event hosted by Agri-Pulse and sponsored by the National Milk Producers Federation and the U.S. Dairy Export Council.

But for now, USDA is focused on expanding operations at the Port of Oakland, traditionally a key export point for U.S. rice, tree nuts, meat, dairy, fruits and vegetables, wine, hay and other commodities.

Vilsack said USDA plans to have the new 25-acre container yard up and running by early March.

The Port of Oakland will be providing the space for the new container yard, which will have its own dedicated gateway.

Furthermore, USDA will be taking the extra step of paying U.S. ag shippers $125 per container they load in the new facility “to basically offset some of the logistics cost,” Vilsack said.

“We’re excited about this and we think it will service Asian markets (which are) seven of the top 10 markets for U.S. agriculture.”

Mike Durkin, president and CEO of Leprino Foods Company, also spoke at the event Monday that was webcast and attended in-person and he called the port expansion program “a really good start” toward relieving the supply chain problems that have been blocking U.S. ag exports.

But Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., who also spoke at the event, mostly dismissed the relevance of the USDA’s efforts. Garamendi stressed that the primary problem for ag shippers is that vessel-operating common carriers are still refusing to take U.S. ag exports because they can make more money by returning empty containers to China where exporters are paying much more to ship products to the U.S.

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“The bottom line is what you’re doing isn’t going to solve the problem,” Garamendi said, aiming his remarks at Vilsack and John Porcari, the port envoy to the White House’s Supply Chain Disruptions Task Force, another speaker at the event. “The problem is that the ocean carriers simply do not understand the word ‘reciprocity.’”

The Ocean Shipping Reform Act, authored by Garamendi and Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., seeks to prevent those containers returning empty by prohibiting carriers from unreasonably refusing “export cargo bookings if such cargo can be loaded safely and timely and carried on a vessel scheduled for such cargo’s immediate destination."

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