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03 Issues & Trends
Cereal Foods World, Vol. 65, No. 1
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1094/CFW-65-1-0005
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Delaware River Offers Opportunities to Global Food Trade
Tad Thompson1

© 2020 Cereals & Grains Association


The port facilities of the Delaware River Valley combine to make up the largest food seaport in the United States, offering a vast, modern infrastructure capable of serving a wide variety of food and related industries. The recent completion of a project to deepen the Delaware River channel has opened access to the larger cargo ships that traverse the deeper, wider Panama Canal and has increased the global reach of the Philadelphia-area ports. The ports are continuing to expand as well, along with the infrastructure and facilities required to safely handle, inspect, and transport food products. Investments in the expansion of solar arrays and new equipment are also improving the environmental impact and sustainability of these seaports.

In 2018, the seaports of the Delaware River Valley handled food and related products worth $5 billion. These Greater Philadelphia port facilities combine to make up the largest food seaport in the United States, according to statistics provided by the Port of Philadelphia (PhilaPort).

Most of the volume of food products consists of highly perishable products, with sea container growth averaging an increase of 10.8% between 2012 and 2018. The port offers a vast, modern infrastructure to serve other food industries as well. As noted below, imported grains are also significant items received in Delaware River seaports.

After years of political maneuvering and then productive work, by December 2019, the deepening of the 103 mile Delaware River channel was completed. Cargo ships traversing the deeper, wider Panama Canal can now freely call upon Philadelphia-area ports.

The infrastructure also includes facilities for all of the needed federal inspection agencies, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Animal and Plant Inspection service (APHIS), the APHIS Plant Protection and Quarantine (PPQ) program, the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), Customs and Border Protection, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Food and customs brokers, warehousing facilities, and interstate highway and rail connections are also available.

With a new channel depth of 45 feet, virtually all ports on the river have added cranes to serve the gigantic ships that are arriving in Philadelphia-area ports. Although refrigerated and dry food storage is available dockside, demand has long driven the development of sophisticated food storage and fumigation facilities surrounding this region, which stretches about 25 miles from Wilmington, DE, to Philadelphia, PA.

With regard to the food business, of the $5 billion total, in 2018 the Delaware River received fresh fruits valued at $3.6 billion. All of the major banana companies serving the United States have operations in Wilmington, Philadelphia, or across the Delaware River in Gloucester City, NJ.

Within a couple of years after free agricultural land use was reinstated in Chile following the 1973 revolution, companies began shipping Chilean grapes and other fresh fruits to Philadelphia. Production expanded exponentially, as did Philadelphia’s service industry and infrastructure, to handle the growth.

As Chilean production grew from virtually nothing, so did its distribution network to other U.S. international seaports. However, Philadelphia remains the primary seaport for receiving Chilean fruit throughout the year, especially during the winter months. According to the latest figures from Chile’s Fruit Exporters Association AG (ASOEX), Chile exported 1,347,621 tons of fresh fruit between September 1, 2018, and March 18, 2019.

In addition to bananas from Central America, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, shipments of other tropical fruits, such as mangoes, clementines, and a variety of fresh berries, as well as asparagus, onions, and other vegetable items, are pouring into Philadelphia.

Other fresh fruits exported to Delaware River ports are citrus fruits (mostly clementines) from South Africa, Morocco, and Spain. Juices and fresh deciduous and citrus fruits from Brazil and Argentina are also big business.

Cocoa beans from Africa have been shipped to Philadelphia for many decades, and the millions of pounds of cocoa beans imported account for 2% of Philadelphia’s ocean cargo tonnage. This trade, of course, led to the development of chocolate businesses in Hershey and other towns in Pennsylvania.

According to PhilaPort in the fall of 2019, Delaware River ports had traded 282,139 metric tons of grains since January 1, 2017. More than 99% of the volume is made up of imports. Wilmington and Philadelphia are about equal in volumes received over the same time period: 140,020 metric tons through Wilmington and 138,139 metric tons through Philadelphia.

Of this volume, 83% comes from two countries: Turkey (139,585 metric tons) and India (95,664 metric tons). Another 16.5% comes from Chile (23,568 metric tons) and Argentina (15,497 metric tons).

Wheat import volume over this time period was 3,748 metric tons, mostly from Argentina (1,966 metric tons) and Turkey (1,655 metric tons). There is very little importation of quinoa grain (Chenopodium quinoa)—only 20 metric tons from Panama through Philadelphia.

Corn is easily the biggest import, accounting for 171,685 metric tons, mostly from Turkey (137,931 metric tons), Chile (20,360 metric tons), and Argentina (12,082 metric tons). Wilmington imports most of the corn and monopolizes corn imports from Turkey. Along the Delaware River, Philadelphia imports virtually all of the 100,521 metric tons of rice, 95% of which is shipped from India.

Expanding the Ports

This year marks the beginning of a vast new port expansion, involving hundreds of millions of dollars in private investments in Wilmington. The Penn Terminal, south of the Philadelphia International Airport, is also gearing up, with massive investments in machinery and warehousing.

Unquestionably, the private-industry leader on the river is the Holt family, which owns Holt Logistics. The company owns the 150 acre Gloucester Marine Terminal LLC in Gloucester City. This terminal handles sea containers using modern cranes, but is also able to handle break bulk pallets of fruit. Leo Holt, president of Holt Logistics, indicated this past summer that the deeper river channel will inevitably open more produce trade deep into the Mediterranean and trade with more ports in Northern Europe. Of course, trade in nonperishable items with Asia and Africa brings boundless opportunities given the larger ships passing through the Panama and Suez Canals.

Environmentally Friendly Investment

In July 2019, the Gloucester Marine Terminal completed a 1.12 MW expansion of its rooftop solar array. This expansion increased by 12% an existing 9.0 MW rooftop solar array that was completed in 2011. “With this expansion, the terminal is again one of the top five largest rooftop solar installations in North America and is the largest outside of California,” Holt indicated.

Directly across the river from the Gloucester terminal, Holt Logistics is the lessor of the Packer Avenue Marine Terminal (PAMT)—a sprawling container terminal owned by PhilaPort that is part of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Holt noted that PAMT is in the later phases of a $190 million investment by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Holt Logistics itself is investing $65 million in enormous cranes for the terminal.

This rapidly expanding ocean container terminal located in south Philadelphia, “has seen some wonderful, if you will, trees sprout up where there were saplings before.” In June 2019, Holt indicated there are four new super post-Panamax cranes, with another one on the way. These new cranes add service beyond the two post-Panamax cranes already in use. PAMT is “starting to look like what it wants to be when it grows up. Which is a facility capable of handling a couple million TEUs of container traffic.” In addition, the new cranes at PAMT and Gloucester are electric, thus avoiding the exhaust emitted by old-fashioned diesel cranes.

How It Began

The food trade is not new to the seaport of Philadelphia. In Colonial times, Philadelphia played a vital role in trade with England and other European trading partners.

At the time, in-season on the Delaware River, Philadelphia’s Dock Street received fresh fruits and vegetables shipped from southern New Jersey. Growers in New Jersey loaded their produce on boats and sailed as many as 50 miles upstream to Dock Street, which is now part of downtown Philadelphia.

For this reason, Dock Street was the home of the first Philadelphia wholesale produce market, which provided the lettuce, peas, onions, apples, and potatoes served to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and other, less illustrious, Philadelphians.

In 1959, the Dock Street Market was replaced by a refrigerated, trailer-high terminal market in the new world-class Philadelphia Food Distribution Center south of downtown. This facility was finally replaced in 2012 with the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market, which is a 700,000 square foot facility. The entire building is refrigerated, making it the world’s largest refrigerator.

Tad Thompson is a freelance writer who has worked in different capacities within the global fresh produce industry since 1977. He lived in Philadelphia for 35 years, where he became deeply familiar with the Delaware River ports and those who operate them. He is a 1976 journalism graduate of Kansas State University and recently returned to Manhattan, KS, to enjoy the nice pace of his hometown.