At the same time that grain represents a vital component of the American diet, it constitutes a vital source of politically neutral export revenues. Even during the most threatening days of the Cold War, which raged between the United States and the Soviet Union for nearly 50 years, grain exports to communist regimes in Eastern Europe continued unabated.

But grain sales represent a great deal more than famine relief. U.S. grain exports last year totaled nearly $14 billion, one of the few success stories in U.S. efforts to achieve a favorable trade balance. And grain exports are expected to increase further as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade is completely phased in over the next few years.Today, the U.S. provides fully 40 percent of total world grain exports, which includes 50 percent of total world wheat exports.

Recently, the ports of Gramercy, St. Rose and Destrehan, La. - the nation's first, third, and eighth leading export grain ports respectively - have merged and now operate as the Port of Southern Louisiana or PSL, making it by far the largest grain port in the United States in 1994. PSL claimed total grain exports of 54.1 million short tons of which 43.8 percent was corn; 18.9 oil seeds; 15 percent animal feeds; 10.3 percent wheat; and 3.9 percent unmilled cereals. The export of corn, PSL's largest export commodity, totaled 23.7 million short tons last year.

Thomas Murray, senior inspector with U.S. Customs' New Orleans District said that the major reason the Port of Southern Louisiana was created was that much of this country, not to mention the world, had never heard of Gramercy.

"Gramercy is a tiny little port midway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. But this region has at least 10 major grain elevators. Most of the grain comes down the Mississippi by barge although a small percentage is transported by rail," said Mr. Murray.

But he added that Russian grain imports, traditionally one of the area's major export destinations, have decreased substantially in the last several years. Amy S. Miller, a PSL port official, noted that more than 60 percent of the port's corn - 14.3 million tons last year - was going to Asia; 10 percent to Africa; 7.5 percent to South America; and only about 7 percent to Europe.

"Part of the confusion over our name is because the jurisdiction of the Port of Southern Louisiana extends from river mile 115 on the Mississippi to river mile 168.5, which includes a variety of facilities and little towns," Ms. Miller said. But she pointed out that, regardless of notoriety, 48.3 percent of all U.S. grains are exported through PSL.

In much the same manner that the PSL is made up of a number of ports, Portland, Ore. - the number two export grain port in the United States - is part of the Columbia/Snake River system which extends 465 miles from Lewiston, Idaho, to the Pacific Ocean and includes more than 24 grain elevators.

Located on the Columbia River are Kalama and Vancouver, Wash., the sixth and seventh leading ports respectively for grain exports. Grain is transported

from Idaho, the Dakotas and Nebraska and the rest of the nation's wheat belt by barge or by the Burlington Northern or Union Pacific railroads.

Taken together, the Columbia/Snake River system claims total 1994 grain exports of more than 18 million short tons (one short ton equals 2,000 lbs.) representing more than a third of total annual U.S. grain exports. Cargo volumes exported through this river complex in 1994 included 15.3 million short tons of wheat and 2 million short tons of corn.

And these numbers are expected to rise substantially once a Chinese boycott on wheat imports from the region is lifted. China imposed the ban several years ago claiming that wheat from three states - Oregon, Washington and Idaho - was suffering from fungal contamination.

The region will also benefit from the elimination of Canada's Western Grain Transportation Act that ended several months ago. The Canadian law provided substantial government subsidies - up to 50 percent - to shippers using Canadian ports. Under GATT, grain shippers are no longer entitled to government assistance and more are expected to begin channeling future exports through the Columbia/Snake River system.


According to data provided by Global Trade Information Service, Inc., the top ten U.S. ports for grain exports are as follows.

Port Thousands of metric tons*

1. Gramercy, La. 19,864

2. Portland, Ore. 7,328

3. St. Rose, La. 6,918

4. New Orleans, La. 6,650

5. Houston, Texas 4,985

6. Kalama, Wash. 3,486

7. Vancouver, Wash. 3,321

8. Destrehan, La. 2,395

9. Galveston, Texas 1,800

10. Seattle, Wash. 1,562

* 1994 figures.