SMN: Panel discussion focuses on Savannah’s perishable import growth, opportunity

exc0819logisticsBy Katie Martin, as published in Savannah Morning News

A panel of logistics representatives from around the state gathered Tuesday at the Embassy Suites Savannah Airport to discuss how to bring more perishables, jobs and opportunity to the Lowcountry during the first Savannah Logistics Lunch presented by the Center for Innovation for Logistics and HunterMaclean attorneys.

More people are adopting healthier lifestyles, so there is a growing demand for fresh fruits and vegetables year-round. And that has ultimately lead to a growth in imports, said Colin McRae, a partner at HunterMaclean, who moderated the panel discussion.

“Georgia is a state that has historically enjoyed strong agricultural exports… But we want to discuss why growth in perishables and agricultural imports is so important to Savannah and the coastal Georgia region,” McRae said.

In 2014, food was listed as the number one export from the Port of Savannah with 200,915 20-foot equivalent container units — or TEUs — setting sail, a 46 percent increase over the last five years. On the import side, food ranked sixth on the list with 80,478 TEUs arriving in Savannah in 2014, a 10 percent increase over the last five years. Retail consumer goods continue to top the list as top import.

Chris Logan, senior director for trade and development for the Georgia Ports Authority, said balance is necessary for business, and for the last few years the GPA has been working to figure out why Savannah hasn’t been more successful in perishable imports.

“Basically it’s a change of attitude, change of perception because most importers revert to that northeast and south Florida area, so we’ve been trying to bring awareness and remove those barriers. And we’ve been successful. We’ve started receiving citrus via the Port of Savannah, and before that wasn’t allowed…” Logan said.

The GPA has also joined forces with the Department of Agriculture to ensure workers were properly trained to handle and inspect imported fruits and vegetables, he said.

“We’ve done a lot of things to get it all in motion and grease the wheel so that perishables can start flowing,” he said.

Lee Woodham, president of FreshPoint Atlanta, which is a fresh produce distribution company that specializes in dairy products and eggs, said the company over the last four years has experienced double-digit growth each year with the growing demand from chefs wanting fresher ingredients.

“Ten years ago farm-to-table was a trend that few people knew about, but now it’s mainstream. Everything is farm-to-table, whether that means a farm in central Georgia or coastal Georgia or Texas — it’s still farm-to-table. It’s about reducing footprint and sustainability…,” Woodham said.

“Chefs are also bringing new items or revitalized items to the table like brussels sprouts or kale where seven years ago we didn’t sell much kale or brussels sprouts, and now it’s the number one and two item… It drives us to look for lots of local options, and if they’re not available locally, we go out as far as we have to, to find them.”

Logan said the industry faces challenges including building confidence with growers that their products will move through Savannah efficiently and quickly with proper storage and refrigeration space. He cited the recent 25,000-square-foot expansion of perishable space by Nordic Savannah as a helpful solution.

“I feel like we’re well underway in knocking down some of the challenges that have prevented this in the past… I feel like that sends a very positive message to the market that Savannah is and will be a new perishable gateway for the southeast,” Logan said.

“It’s a wonderful time to come to Savannah with perishables on your mind.”