Going up: Port elevator resumes grain shipments

It’s been about four years since the Port of Brownsville signed an agreement with agricultural commodity trading firm West Plains LLC to lease the port’s long-idled grain elevator and get it back in operation.

West Plains, a subsidiary of Houston-based BioUrja Group, invested at least $13 million in rebuilding and upgrading the facility and its electrical and conveyance systems, and in recent years the 3 million-bushel elevator has been active, transferring grain commodities like corn and sorghum to and from rail cars and trucks.

Repairs and structural improvements to the port’s bulk cargo dock servicing the elevator were also carried out, with West Plains sharing some of the cost as part of the lease agreement.

Finally late last month, 13 years after grain last crossed the bulk dock, 34,000 metric tons of Rio Grande Valley sorghum was loaded from the elevator onto the deep-draft vessel M/V Tian Fu for export to China. It was the first of four sorghum shipments West Plains plans to ship from Brownsville to China this year, according to the port.

Port Director and CEO Eduardo Campirano noted that the vessel didn’t arrive at the port empty.

“Actually what is interesting about this operation is that it was a vessel that came from China with wind blades,” he said. “It was cleaned up and prepped and loaded with grain to go back to China. That’s really a win-win for everybody.”

Campirano, interviewed on Sept. 15, said another vessel was already anchored offshore that day waiting to receive 33,000 metric tons of sorghum to carry back to China. The sorghum came to the port from around the Valley as well as from growers nearly as far north as Corpus Christi, he said. Finally loading a vessel from the elevator is a milestone, Campirano said.

“That was one of the huge objectives of the grain elevator and us getting involved and West Plains, was to move grain not just by truck and rail but also by vessel,” he said. “They worked very hard to accomplish that, so we’ve got a good partner in West Plains.”

The elevator stood unused after the previous private operator went bankrupt. The port got ownership back, but wasn’t interested in trying to run it, Campirano said.

“We don’t operate a grain elevator and didn’t want to operate a grain elevator, so what we did was we put it out for proposals,” he said.

With the help of an outside consultant, the port chose West Plains as having the best proposal for getting the elevator back into commission, and that appears to be paying off. The company has further improvements planned for the elevator, and a few changes are still being made to the dock, which the elevator shares with the Vulcan Materials Company, one of the port’s biggest customers and one that brings in some of the largest ships.

The M/V Tian Fu takes on 34,000 metric tons of Rio Grande Valley sorghum at the Port of Brownsville for export to China. It’s the first time in 13 years grain commodities have crossed the maritime dock at the port. COURTESY PHOTO

In general the port is doing well despite the pandemic, Campirano said. Like the international bridges, ports are deemed essential services and so must keep operating, he said. This year’s numbers are even running ahead of last year, which was a good year, Campirano said.

“We’ve seen some peaks and valleys and some slowdowns, but for the most part we’ve kept our doors open because we’ve needed to support the activities of the port,” Campirano said. “The trains are still coming in. The trucks are coming in in large numbers. We’re still supporting our terminal operations. We have remained busy.”