Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.
- Yogi Berra (and others)
In recent months, we’ve been sharing stories about crowded West Coast ports. These stories could leave the impression that port traffic is stopped dead. That is, one might think the ports are so crowded that nothing is moving. To the contrary, trade volume through these ports is breaking records. U.S. agricultural exports were projected to be a record $173.5 billion in the fiscal year that ended with September, and on the other side, U.S. imports of manufactured goods were worth $1.24 trillion (with a “t”) in the six months ending with September, 24% above a year ago and 13% above the same period in 2019, our last “normal” year.
But the ports are struggling to keep this pace up, and the unevenness of deliveries is causing problems across our economy.
Part of what is driving that import volume has been record imports of consumer goods by American consumers, many of whom are flush after months of staying home (and some are still reluctant to leave the house.) Instead, they are buying record amounts of “stuff,” including electronic gadgets for their home entertainment, building materials for their home improvements, and furniture for their home decor.
Furniture, for example, is big and bulky and a lot of it comes from overseas through West Coast ports. Long delivery delays have been getting longer, as furniture imports are up 32% in 2021 through September. Electronics take up less space in a container, but imports of stereos and televisions are up 26%.
In addition, the economy is recovering rapidly after the long COVID pause, so the demand for all sorts of goods needed to keep our farms, factories and services operating is up, as well. Delays in the deliveries of these goods are causing cascading problems through the entire economy, including delays in fertilizer imports, difficulties getting computer chips and spare parts from overseas, and the shortage of available containers, which is putting a crimp in our record agricultural exports and contributing to inflation. (We highlighted this last month.)
This is made worse by a shortage of long-haul truckers; the American Trucking Association estimates that the industry is short by 80,000 drivers overall.
So, what do we do about it?
There have been policy proposals and recommendations. Some can help soon, but many will take considerable time and investment.
Some have suggested routing more “stuff” through ports in the East Coast states that have already made investments in expansion to create additional capacity. This is happening to some degree, but it requires longer routes from Asia, tying up ships and containers that are already in short supply.
Others have suggested that Americans should simply buy less stuff. That’s a tough sell.
But maybe we can buy different stuff. Or non-stuff. And the holidays may be just the time to do it.
Shortening the supply lines
Most of the year, we need what we need.
But the holidays are a time when the thought counts most of all, and that thought can fit (and count) in a smaller package or a package from closer by.
If you order a couch made in Asia today, it almost certainly won’t arrive until well into the new year, and when it does come, it will contribute to the short-run port difficulties.
But if you pick up a cheese box (and a quart of maple syrup and a fruit basket) from the farm stand or farmer’s market down the road, you’ll have something special and you’ll take a load off the supply chain.
If you buy that new TV, even off the shelf, it will be replaced with another order to be delivered through our strained transportation system.
But if you buy a gift certificate to a favorite restaurant on Main Street or make a donation to a local charity, you’ll create a memory and you’ll make room for imported goods more critical to farmers and factories.
Am I saying imports are bad? Not at all. Trade is important to American agriculture. But the pandemic shook up our economy, and the entire supply chain is struggling to catch up. Taking the time to enjoy what’s close by this season can give our ports and shippers a little breathing room to grow and adjust.
So, if you want to help clear up West Coast port congestion, unsnarl our supply chains, and get your gifts on time, consider purchasing local and regional products, including farm products, to check off your holiday shopping lists.