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Cotton shippers navigate box shortage with old-time stowage

Emma Alsop, June 29, 2022

Cotton Australia CEO Adam Kay speaking at a Rural Press Club event last week.

THE DIFFICULTY accessing shipping containers has the cotton industry turning to exporting methods from by-gone days with an innovative break bulk shipment anticipated out of the Port of Brisbane next month.

Cotton Australia chief executive officer Adam Kay told the Rural Press Club last week that plans are under way to ship about 100,000 bales of cotton via break bulk to Turkey.

Instead of packing cotton into 40-foot containers, break bulk involves loading cotton into the hold of a ship, a method widely used to export bales prior to containers becoming widely available in the 1970s.

 

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It is believed the bales bound for Turkey will be packed into polypropylene bags before being secured in the hold.

Mr Kay said this innovative approach to exporting cotton was testament to the demand for the Australian product.

“We are going back 100 years to get it out of the country, because the clients are wanting it and they can’t get the boxes,” Mr Kay said.

Turkey is the third-biggest importer of Australian cotton, and a market that has expanded in recent years and may provide future opportunities for growth.

Australian Cotton Shippers Association (ACSA) chairman Roger Tomkins said the industry had been talking about the prospect of break-bulk shipments for several months.

“It has been a huge effort; it has taken a lot of work to get to this stage,” Mr Tomkins said.

“This is what the industry does best, finding ways to overcome problems.”

Mr Tomkins said he had never heard of another break-bulk cotton shipment out of Australia or the US in his time in the cotton industry.

“I have been in the industry over 30 years, there has been no break bulk out of Australia and none out of the US in that time that I am aware of.

“It is purely the cotton industry thinking outside the box, in coming out with ways to move the big crop.”

No end to container pain

He said the reduction in product sent to China has restricted the number of empty containers available to move cotton to Australia’s biggest markets, Vietnam and Indonesia.

“We are restricted because a significant number of 40-foot containers leaving Australia are now shipped back to China empty.

“We are having those issues, because we are unable to ship cotton to China anymore and we are finding ways around it.

“One way to do that is to charter a vessel and use their own containers, and that still might happen.

“The other is to try and commandeer a backload in some form of break bulk or other vessel, like this case.”

With a late start to ginning, Mr Tomkins said the full extent of the container issues won’t be experienced until August.

“At this stage, I think shipping has been going okay.

“I believe we are now at virtually full operation in the gins, so the pressure will come in August.”

Mr Tomkins said this year could see cotton carried over into the next season.

“It could well be that we will have bales left in warehouses at the beginning of next year’s season.

“We have never really carried forward…and it may well be the case not because it is not necessarily sold but just because it has not been able to be shipped.”

Road freight gaps

Alongside ocean freight problems and the prospect of static storage capacity shortfalls, Mr Tomkins said the cotton industry is grappling with road freight issues.

“The bigger concern for us realistically at the moment isn’t ocean freight, it’s road freight.

“It is a matter of finding the truck and finding the driver for the truck.”

Mr Tomkins said ACSA understands this is an economy-wide problem and one that will require the industry to work with the agriculture sector and governments to improve the situation.

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