Why go to Panama & Ecuador? – Part 1

It’s an odd feeling to know that I’m about to embark on a journey that I know is going to be life changing.  I don’t really know how exactly, but I am confident that it will be life changing.  Prior to this trip, Canada was the extent of my international travels, and that was before 9-11 when one only needed a copy of their birth certificate to cross the border.

 How in the world does someone who did not have a passport 6 months ago end up traveling to Panama and Ecuador?  It all started last spring when a friend shared that there was an opportunity for farmers to apply for the See for Yourself program.

This is the seventh annual See for Yourself program that the United Soybean Board (USB) oversees.  USB is like the national soybean board which, according to the USB website ”administers soybean checkoff activities focusing on research and market development and expansion.”

Each year, there are 10 farmers who are selected to participate in the See for Yourself program.  I am honored to have been chosen to participate this year. I am anxious to meet the other farmers and learn more about how USB works.  I’m particularly interested in gaining a deeper understanding of how markets are developed for U.S. soybean farmers.

To fully understand my interest in this program, it’s helpful to understand some of my background.

Way back when, I worked for an international grain and food company.  My first job with this company was in the grain division working in Washington State.  I was stationed at a grain elevator along the Columbia River. Our elevator handled wheat – three different kinds!

Where I worked, all the wheat that was delivered to us was loaded onto barges and sent to Portland, OR to then be loaded onto ships and exported to other countries.  Most of the wheat we handled eventually ended up in the Pacific Rim countries.

Being part of the process of seeing the wheat grow, harvested, and eventually shipped to other parts of the world was fascinating.  I learned how the international buyers buy grain and how the pricing structure works – there’s the price here in the U.S. and how competitive that is compared to other countries trying to sell their own grain plus what is the cost of transportation across the U.S. not to mention the international shipping rates.  It’s a little bit like a puzzle with lots of pieces.

The barges that we loaded in Washington held anywhere from 65 to 110 semi truck loads of grain.  The barges were sent down the Columbia River to Portland, OR.  Each barge that we sent to Portland was offloaded to a terminal elevator for temporary storage until being reloaded onto the ship.  Each international buyer has specifications that they require the grain to meet.

While I was stationed in Washington, I had to opportunity to spend a two weeks at one of my company’s shipping terminals in Portland, and learn how ships are loaded.  There are financial penalties charged (demurrage) if the ships aren’t loaded quickly enough.  Samples are taken throughout the loading process and every several thousand bushels that are loaded are checked to ensure that the overall ship load will meet the buyer’s specifications.

Being on a grain ship was amazing.  Some of the stories that the crew and the old timers told were fascinating, and some seemed a little far-fetched J

Fast forward to today, no longer in the Pacific Northwest near where ships are loaded and sent to faraway countries.  Today, some of the corn and soybeans raised on our farm go to the grain elevators in Topeka, KS.  {See my post from September 21, 2012 about where all of our grain is shipped to.}  Part of the grain that is in the elevators in Topeka is shipped by rail to the Gulf of Mexico to be loaded onto ships and exported to other countries.  Many of those ships go through the Panama Canal – which is one of the highlights on this trip that I’m about to embark upon.

So that’s a little bit of my background, from my past work experience of learning how international grain buyers buy U.S. grain and loading ships to where my own farm’s grain may end up on a ship at the Gulf of Mexico.  This all leads to why I am interested in learning more about how the United Soybean Board helps to develop markets for U.S. farmers.  I’m excited to be participating!


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