Port Prioritizes Produce With Cold Storage Plans

By Audrey Elsberry, posted Dec 12, 2023
The N.C. State Ports Authority announced a partnership with Rocky Point's Lewis Nursery and Farm and its subsidiary American Blueberries. (File photo)
A cold treatment facility in Rocky Point announced its certification through the USDA, contributing to the Port of Wilmington’s efforts to boost produce imports.

The N.C. State Ports Authority announced a partnership with Rocky Point’s Lewis Nursery and Farms and its subsidiary American Blueberries on Tuesday. The cold treatment and storage facility will allow blueberries, grapes, apples, pears, citrus and other organics to be imported through the Port of Wilmington year-round, officials said.

“Ultimately, our goal is to reduce the cost of handling goods in and out of the state,” said Brian Clark, executive director of the N.C. State Ports Authority. “And a lot of these volumes today, particularly the imports, are moving through ports north and south of us. So, now we can start handling those here.”

The Port of Wilmington has been focused on building its support for the cold supply chain for several years, Clark said. The port completed its refrigerated container yard in 2020, dubbed Phase One. Phase Two expanded the port’s capacity for cold storage cargo. Now, the port has around 1,500 cold storage plugs, which maintain the temperature of refrigerated cargo, Clark said.

Clark said the Lewis Nursery and Farms partnership is the latest of multiple developments underway supporting the cold supply chain. In Pender County, shipping company Maersk’s subsidiary Performance Team will open a cold storage warehouse in January. Cold Summit Development is also building an approximately 300,000-square-foot cold storage facility on Raleigh Street.

“So all those pieces together... gives us the capability to not only handle a large export opportunity between pork, poultry and sweet potatoes, we now have the certification in place to start handling a broad range of import perishables,” Clark said.

The Lewis Nursery and Farms facility is not new. Still, with its USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service certification, it is the only facility of its kind in North Carolina. According to the USDA, the certification means it’s been checked to ensure no pests or diseases enter the U.S. through imports. The certification makes North Carolina one of seven states in the U.S. with a cold storage facility of this capacity.

“We are now poised to service customers choosing to use the Port of Wilmington with an option to treat their commodities if necessary, providing a great opportunity to enhance North Carolina’s agricultural business,” said Cal Lewis, president of Lewis Nursery and Farms, in its release.

Cold treatment is essential to shipping organics because it eliminates pests from produce before it is imported into the country. The treatment lowers the temperature of the produce for the specified period. This can be conducted while the cargo ship is en route to the port. But suppose the cooling time has not met the specifications for treatment. In that case, the cargo container can be plugged into these cold storage facilities once it arrives to complete the cooling and pest-removal process. Clark said this process is what the Rocky Point facility will help with.

In cases where the cooling treatment malfunctions onboard the vessel, the Lewis Nursery and Farms facility can re-treat the produce cargo, according to port officials.

“It becomes very difficult to convince shippers to move cargo into the port if there’s the possibility that it can’t actually arrive,” as in the case of failed cold treatment onboard the ship, Clark said.

Clark said the recent establishment of Seaboard Marine’s route to and from Central America, delivering produce and apparel, is one part of the cold storage picture. The new weekly route, which had its first call last week, handles imports and exports from the Port of Wilmington.

The investment in cold storage at the port is complete, Clark said. There are plans for a Phase Three if volumes require it, he said, but the number of plugs the port has is enough for the current demand.

“[We’re] certainly in a much better position to support growth than we were not too long ago.”
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