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New Ports Important for Montana Agriculture
Guest Column
Montana exports had a record year in 2012. Led by grain, Montana exported over $2.48 billion in high-value grain last year. We’re producing products and commodities that the world wants, and all our communities benefit from the resulting jobs, economic growth and tax revenue.
But to continue to thrive in the highly competitive global marketplace, Montana’s agriculture producers need to be able to access the emerging markets where new demand is expanding. We produce some of the most outstanding agricultural products in the world, but if we can’t get those products to the markets that want them, someone else will fill that demand. 

Right now one of the problems faced by Montana producers is America’s capacity to export our goods is becoming constrained. The port facilities on the West Coast are at capacity, and expanding existing ports and building new ones is the only way that we can ensure that Montana’s ag products have an opportunity to reach new areas of demand.

There are a handful of proposals on the drawing board to expand port capacity, but all are far from certain due to efforts to stop port expansion. Much of the opposition comes from radical environmental activists because they want to stop coal mining in Montana. If they’re successful in stopping expansion, they’re not just hurting our coal industry – they’ll hurt other industries in Montana that serve overseas markets. With Montana’s agriculture products representing, by far, the bulk of Montana’s exports, the members of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation are very interested in seeing port capacity expanded.

It is silly to try to claim a division between natural resource industries in Montana by suggesting additional rail traffic to ship coal would somehow replace rail capacity for other commodities, like grain. This is simply not the case for one simple reason: railroads make more money shipping agriculture commodities than they do shipping coal.

According to a recent study by the railroad industry, the average revenue per ton/mile for coal was 2.5 cents, compared to the average RPTM for all other commodities at 5.3 cents. That means railroads derive nearly twice as much revenue from other commodities, like grain, than they do from coal. It’s simple math – railroads would leave money on the table if they started supplanting coal for other products.

The Montana Farm Bureau strongly supports proposals to build new ports in Washington and Oregon to give Montana producers more access to growing foreign markets. We pride ourselves on growing and raising the best beef and grain in the world; let’s make sure that the world has access to it.

Bruce Wright is the vice president of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation. He farms near Bozeman.
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