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  December 4th, 2017 | Written by

Port of Wilmington’s Positioning as Cold-Chain Hub

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  • Until recently Wilmington lacked nearby cold storage infrastructure.
  • A new, 101,000 square foot refrigerated warehouse has opened within the port of Wilmington's gates.
  • One-third of North Carolina's sweet potato crop is exported.

The port of Wilmington, North Carolina, is well positioned geographically to serve the state’s robust agriculture export industry, but until recently it lacked nearby cold storage infrastructure, prompting some exporters to look elsewhere.

But a few months ago, a new, 101,000 square foot refrigerated warehouse, used to maintain specific temperatures for the storage of perishable goods, opened within the port’s gates. Port of Wilmington Cold Storage, has three-billion cubic feet, with a refrigerated loading and storage dock, a larger freezer section, and a blast-freezer compartment, and has the potential to triple its current capacity to over 300,000 square feet, according to Richard Mayes, managing partner of Carolina Capital LLC, a provider of cold chain logistics consulting, operations, and investments, who spoke at a cold chain summit organized by North Carolina Ports in Wilmington earlier this month.

The new cold storage facility was developed as part of a pubic-private partnership, the first of its kind for the state-owned and operated port.

Growing sweet potatoes is a booming industry in North Carolina, with production having more than doubled between 2012 and 2015, according to Blake Brown, a professor at North Carolina State University, who also spoke at the summit. Ham Farms, a North Carolina sweet potato producer exports to 16 countries and fully one-third of North Carolina’s sweet potato crop is exported, noted Kris Radford, the company’s chief operating officer.

Sweet potatoes are a super food,” he said. “More people are catching on to this all over the world.” Sweet potatoes are a commodity that must be kept at a moderately cold temperature throughout the supply chain if it is to arrive fresh at destination markets.

Exporting allows Ham Farms to sell more of its output. Larger sweet potatoes are most popular in the United States, but in export markets such as Europe, petite sweet potatoes are also more readily accepted. Europeans are also more apt to try new kinds of sweet potato products, such as chips and fries, than are Americans.

North Carolina is a state of specialty crops, according to Brown, with sweet potatoes, peanuts, blueberries, tomatoes, watermelons, strawberries, apples, and cotton figuring among the produce the state’s farmers grow. The state is also known for the diversity of products grown on individual farms—which is not true in some other places—and in the emphasis placed by the state’s farmers on exporting. “Some farms export 60 to 70 percent of their output,” said Brown. North Carolina is a net exporter of poultry and pork as well as its menu of specialty products.

Hog Slat, which produces live hogs as well as hog farming and processing equipment, is working on opening new markets in Argentina and India and has opened new plants in the United States to increase its output by 10 percent, all of which is meant for export.

In the US, pork consumption has been stuck at around 50 pounds per person per year for about ten years and has not risen, despite the best efforts of the industry. Yet pork exports to Mexico have grown dramatically during the same period, even though domestic Mexican production has also increased at the same time. The company has been exporting to Mexico for 20 years.

Said David Herring, Hog Slat’s vice president: “All of the growth opportunities in pork come from exporting.”

Ham Farms has been exporting for 10 years, but not necessarily utilizing the port of Wilmington until about two years ago, even though Wilmington is closest to the agriculture intense areas of southeastern North Carolina. “They have a good system,” said Radford. “The rapid turn times contribute to the quality of our product.”