While Illinois traditionally exports billions of dollars of soybeans annually, trade tensions between the United States and China have changed the market landscape.

Until last month, China had all but stopped buying beans because of tariffs placed by the United States on billions of dollars in Chinese goods. The dispute led China to impose a 25 percent tariff on U.S. soybeans and make South America a preferred supplier, especially now that new-crop soybeans are becoming available.

The Illinois Soybean Association checkoff program has been addressing this challenge by working to sustain and broaden soybean exports through a number of channels, including a more diverse global transportation network. The Illinois soybean industry has found it can deliver smaller quantities of beans efficiently while preserving quality through containerized shipping.

Containers have been a viable form of soybean transportation in recent years. Available supplies of empty containers throughout the country provide backhaul opportunities to select locations in Asia to transport soybeans and soy products.

Backhaul rates are offered at large discounts to incoming shipments of goods from Asia. And new digital trading platforms now make it even easier to link soybean producers to empty containers and soybean buyers.

Movement of soybeans via containers today represents about 5 percent to 7 percent of total U.S. soybean exports. Illinois container use is slightly higher because Chicago is one of the nation’s busiest transportation hubs.

More than 3 million containers annually flow through suburban Will County alone, carrying about $65 billion worth of products. Illinois’ nearly 7,000 miles of rail lines, more than 2,000 miles of interstate highways and two commercially important rivers help generate a regular supply of empty containers for the state’s soybean industry.

ISA finds importers in smaller markets like Taiwan, Indonesia and Vietnam like containers because they desire smaller quantities. In fact, Taiwan was the largest destination for U.S. soybean container exports in the 2017 crop year, according to an Informa Agribusiness Intelligence study for the ISA checkoff program and the Soybean Transportation Coalition.

ISA was successful last year in connecting two shippers to new freight companies that resulted in shipping about 200 containers of soybeans, or about 183,718 bushels, from Chicago.

Trade facilitated by ISA also included buyers from Thailand, China and Indonesia for soybeans and the Philippines and Myanmar for soybean meal. The increase in containerized business via ISA connections kept more soybeans moving out of Illinois and created more trade flows.

Other benefits that ISA has identified while building the containerized shipping market are better access to some developing countries’ locales that don’t have the port infrastructure to handle bulk shipments.

These smaller customers also often have limited ability to finance larger shipments, but still want the soybean identity preservation and faster turn-around and delivery.

We believe that as global competition becomes stronger, investment in the nation’s container transportation network will become more vital to the success of Illinois soybean producers.

Trade tensions with China or other buyers, if extended, could also bring about a permanent shift in global supply chains, making the case for diversification of our sales and creativity in delivering soy products even more urgent. Learn more about what ISA is doing at ilsoy.org.


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