CHESAPEAKE CITY - State agriculture officials are looking at the possibility of establishing a grain-barging operation on the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal that could save Harford and Cecil County farmers, as well as those in Delaware and southern Pennsylvania, more than $1.5 million a year to transport their crops to market.
Perdue Farms Inc., the giant poultry processing company based in Salisbury, is seeking to establish a grain port facility at Danns Marine Towing near here, according to Bradley H. Powers, a consultant to Perdue and a former deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
Powers said such a facility could save farmers 30 cents to 40 cents a bushel on shipping soybeans to Perdue's bean-crushing plant in Chesapeake, Va.
Henry Holloway, a Harford County farmer and owner of The Mill farm supply stores in Bel Air, Whiteford and Shawsville, said the savings could be even greater.
Holloway said it costs about $600 to transport 800 bushels of soybeans to Chesapeake. He said that amounts to about 75 cents a bushel.
"A barging operation," he said, "could put 50 cents a bushel for freight back in the farmers' pockets.
"That's a huge, huge savings," added Holloway. "If you grow 10,000 bushels of soybeans, you've just made 5 grand. That's significant."
Paul Raech, who farms about 300 acres near Earleville in southern Cecil County, said a C&D; grain pier could cut in half the time he spends hauling his grain to a buyer in Townsend, Del.
He said it is normally a three-hour round trip to Townsend, and "time is money. This could be a big savings for us."
Powers cautioned that the efforts to locate an operation at the Danns Marine facility "is still in the exploratory stage and nothing has been decided."
The Danns Marine terminal is on the north side of the C&D; Canal, about a half-mile west of the Route 213 bridge, where Long Branch flows into the canal.
"This one seems to be most promising," Powers said of the site. "It offers easy access for farmers in southeastern Pennsylvania, Harford and Cecil counties as well as Delaware."
'A lot of potential'
Powers said grain could be loaded on a barge at the C&D; Canal site and moved by tugboat from the canal to the Elk River and then into the Chesapeake Bay for the trip to Chesapeake.
He said that if a strong market for grain developed in the Caribbean or at hog operations in North Carolina, the ocean-going barges could travel the opposite direction. This would lead to the Delaware River, into the Delaware Bay and eventually to the Atlantic Ocean.
"There's a lot of potential either way," Powers said.
He said Perdue is looking for a company to operate a barging venture under a contract with the poultry-processing company.
"Our goal," said Powers, "is to have something up and running by the harvest season in September and October."
The state may also play a role in establishing a grain shipping operation, according to S. Patrick McMillan, an assistant secretary with the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
McMillan headed a task force established by the General Assembly last year to study the feasibility of establishing new grain-shipping points in the state. The committee's report, which is expected to go to lawmakers this week, "considers the possibility of developing a barge site," he said.
Grain elevator closed
The need for such a facility came in the summer of 2001, when the port of Baltimore's only grain elevator was damaged by a storm and forced to close.
The closing of the North Locust Point elevator marked the first time in more than a century that ships hauling grain did not call at Baltimore. At one point, the port had three grain elevators, and they accounted for nearly 20 percent of the port's exports and were considered a critical part of the state's economy.
After the collapse of the North Locust Point elevator, a study by the University of Maryland, College Park concluded that the lack of a grain pier in Baltimore was costing Central Maryland grain farmers $25 million a year in lost revenue.
Holloway expressed hope that a grain pier on the C&D; Canal would lead to the development of new markets for Maryland grain.
He said increased competition could also boost the price farmers are paid for their grain.