The North Carolina Port of Wilmington is an important place for the agriculture industry of North Carolina due to the amount of imports and exports it moves each year. In fact, roughly 1,000 transactions of products, both ag and non-ag related, come through the port each day. The port provides many opportunities for farmers to export their products overseas, including sweet potatoes, produce, tobacco, lumber and meat products. “If you think about the range of agriculture products in North Carolina, there is probably an export opportunity for virtually all of them,” said Tom Guthrie, Director of Key Accounts and Commercial Development for the Port of Wilmington. “Agriculture is vital to the economy of North Carolina and we are proud to be the bridge that connects our state’s number one industry with the rest of the world.”
Over the last few years, the North Carolina State Ports Authority has completed a number of capital improvements at the Port of Wilmington, many of which open up opportunities for our agricultural community. One of these improvements was expanding the entry and exit gates on the port terminal. The new complex features seven inbound lanes (previously four) and six outbound lanes (previously three) moving truckers quickly and efficiently through the gate, onto the port, and back on the road in a timely manner. “All containers enter through these gates and we capture all transactional information, as well as truck information, before entering the terminal,” Tom said. “This latest investment, along with our other completed and planned improvements, will draw additional ocean services and open up greater availability and slots to move agriculture products from our state.” The new South Gate complex enables N.C. Ports to meet increasing container volume while continuing to improve on the fastest truck turn times on the East Coast.
A prominent improvement the port has made for N.C. farmers is their expansion of the refrigerated container yard. The first phase of the expansion increased the port’s on-terminal refrigerated container plugs, often referred to as reefers, from 235 to 775. Beyond this initial expansion, a second phase will increase the yard’s capacity to more than 1,400 plugs. Each of these containers can be set to specific temperature requirements depending upon the contents of the container. For example, a container holding meat products is typically set between -10 and -15 degrees Fahrenheit, whereas a container of sweet potatoes is set around 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Many agricultural products are maintained in these refers before heading off to their final destination, including a variety of fruits and vegetables. “The need to expand refrigerated container handling and storage was stressed by many farmers, ag industry professionals and others. N.C. Ports listened and responded by investing in this multi-phase project for the port,” Tom said. “Without these improvements farmers would have to ship their products longer distances and at a greater cost. We are proud to see our farmers taking greater advantage of this service.”
In addition to the reefer containers in the refrigerated container yard, the Port of Wilmington also recently invested in an 8,000 sq. ft. chiller, which is a warehouse that serves as a refrigerated unit, although not a freezer. “The chiller investment focuses on inbound produce being supplied to grocery stores,” said Tom. “It’s also important to note that these imports generate refrigerated container flow, which can then be used to support N.C. exports, ensuring a greater equipment supply for our farmers.”
Not only do the cold storage facilities allow for the storage of frozen products, but they also provide the opportunity to blast freeze product received from processing plants. “Blast freezing opens up the opportunity for commodities that need to be frozen to have a place on the port, such as meat products,” Tom said. “These units blast temperatures well below -10 degrees Fahrenheit to ensure the products inside the storage unit stay frozen.” The demand for these units as well as the products held inside them has skyrocketed around the world since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
“As people isolated and stayed close to home during the pandemic the demand for a variety of agriculture products as gone up,” Tom said. “Although our port has been affected by increased shipping costs and logistic strains from delayed ships and schedules, these expansions and improvements on our port terminal have proven more beneficial and helped us throughout the pandemic.” Tom and his team look forward to ongoing cold storage expansion around the port and seeing its benefits for many years to come. “Agriculture plays a big role in North Carolina and in the N.C. Ports Authority,” Tom said, “so knowing that we provide a benefit to them through the work that we do to ensure their products are shipped safely and efficiently around the world, brings us a huge source of pride every day.”
Fun Fact: The Port of Wilmington has been featured in a variety of popular cinematic films through the years. For example, Crane 12, shown here, is the one that explodes at the end of Iron Man 3! Be sure to keep an eye out for it the next time you visit the theater or enjoy a quite movie night at home!
North Carolina is proud to be home to facilities like this that help expand the knowledge and footprint of North Carolina agriculture around the world. The port of Wilmington, as well as the Port of Morehead City, is a vital part of our state’s agriculture industry and is relied on by many different farmers, from produce to meat and poultry. We are proud of all the work being done to offer greater opportunities for these farmers to reach the world with their delicious products. Follow along on the NC Ports social media outlets to stay up to date on the latest improvements and expansions and keep an eye out for photos of the large and beautiful ships that come in and out of the port each day!