Federal agriculture officials have agreed to continue livestock inspections at the Eastport shipping terminal, thereby allowing the port to continue a new and growing export business that has handled roughly 20,000 head of cattle since last summer.
What began with an initial shipment of 500 pregnant cows from Maine to Turkey last July has grown into a substantial business for Eastport, which is the only port in New England authorized to export livestock. Since January, an estimated 17,000 cattle have passed through the Washington County community better known for its commercial fisheries.
But the international cattle shipments first must pass inspection from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And until this week, port officials and Maine’s congressional delegation were unsure whether the USDA would renew the inspection contracts before they expired on Nov. 15.
“I am very pleased that they have decided to renew the inspection contracts,” U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud said in a statement. “These exports have been critical to the economic viability of this port, which is so integral to the economy of this region.”
For years, the shipping terminal in Eastport has handled largely pulp and pulp-related products from the Woodland mill. But livestock exports have emerged as a growth area thanks to Eastport’s location as the closest U.S. port to Europe and Maine’s clean bill of health with regard to certain livestock diseases.
Cows from Maine, other New England states and as far away as Wisconsin have been transported to Eastport, where they were loaded onto ventilated, climate-controlled livestock containers for the trip overseas.
The port’s dominant livestock customer has been a Texas company called Sexing Technologies that uses technology to sort bull semen for farmers that specifically want either male or female calves. Heifers impregnated with semen from Sexing Technologies’ system are then loaded onto the livestock containers, often headed for Turkey.
Chris Gardner, executive director of the Eastport Port Authority, said the livestock exports have had a “huge impact” on the port, accounting for the majority of the new business at the facility in what could be a banner year.
The additional ships have allowed the port to offer employees more hours as well as hire extra staff, all of this in an area of Down East Maine with higher rates of unemployment.
But Gardner, who is also a Washington County commissioner, said the livestock export business doesn’t only benefit the shipping industry. It is also opening new international markets for farmers.
“And it doesn’t cost the taxpayer any money,” Gardner said. “These [USDA inspection] positions are paid fully by the shipper.”
Eastport had originally hoped to obtain a long-term certification from the USDA’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service as a livestock exportation facility. But Ed Gilman, spokesman for Michaud, said it actually made more sense to maintain the port’s status with a temporary certification.
“The livestock shipments are not full-time, around-the-clock operations, so what APHIS did was establish this temporary designation that allows them to be there on an as-needed basis,” Gilman said.
Gardner credited all four members of Maine’s congressional delegation — Michaud, Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins and Rep. Chellie Pingree — with helping the port to obtain a new certification.
Al Day, general manager with Federal Marine Terminals, which operates the Eastport port, said Thursday that additional livestock shipments are scheduled for next week and the week after.