DULUTH - The Moroccan businessmen walked inside a corridor of the century-old grain elevator, tapping fists on concrete cinderblocks — like one might kick tires on a used car.
They wanted to know if the big old grain elevator, called Elevator A, with over 60 silos towering over the blue-black waters of Lake Superior, still had life.
"How do you ensure the silo is empty?" Youssef Mikou, general manager of Alf Sahel, a feed mill in Morocco, said.
"We will go right down into the bins," said Jeff Blaskowski, a Twin Ports facility manager for Hansen-Mueller, an Omaha-based grain buyer that owns the elevator.
The port's shipping lanes just endured the softest year for agricultural exports in well over a century. The May 30 visit by four leading grain buyers from Morocco to the Twin Ports of Duluth and Superior, Wis. — the name for the matrix of shipping and railyards at the western edge of Lake Superior — offered hope for renewed vitality.
In 2022, Duluth-Superior port authorities tallied a meager 644,000 tons of grain that terminals loaded onto boats, the lowest amount since Benjamin Harrison sat in the White House in 1889.
As a passenger cruise boat circled the harbor during the recent visit, local officials are keen to flex the working harbor's reputation once again.
For the Moroccans, a ship carrying feed from Duluth could cut five days off their current shipments from the U.S., which take a convoluted route by Panamax vessel from the Gulf of Mexico.
For northern U.S. soybean farmers, the Twin Ports represent an access point to the international market that has gone underutilized in recent decades.
"One of the opportunities that has been knocking at the door for the last eight years is soy," Kate Ferguson, director of trade and business development with the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, said. "Unfortunately, the last couple years we've seen a pretty significant cut off that number [of grain]."
Iron ore comprises more than half the tonnage leaving the Duluth port. But grain — including wheat, canola, flax and sugar beet pulp pellets — has historically and steadily been the port's largest international export.
And yet grain tonnage has declined since the 1970s, when annual totals twice eclipsed 10 million tons. Last year's total represent a 93% drop in grain exports since then.
Part of the decline has been a consequence of competition from larger boats on coastal ports. Those Panamax vessels — so-named to fit through the Panama Canal — await soybeans at the Gulf of Mexico and can carry more than 50,000 tons of cargo.
Meanwhile, ships leaving Duluth must navigate the locks and dams of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway — an artery constructed in the 1950s connecting the Atlantic Ocean to Minnesota's North Shore. This means smaller ocean-going vessels, often carrying 20,000 to 25,000 tons, are required.
To make a journey profitable, vessels must carry materials, such as wind turbine equipment, to the port on the inbound journey.
"Ships that leave Duluth with grain need to come into Duluth carrying something else," Monica Haynes, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at University of Minnesota Duluth's Labovitz School of Business and Economics, said. "They need to make it worth their money."
Sometimes, however, the smaller vessels are an asset.
Currently, Morocco's poultry producers buy U.S. grain to feed their birds. When boats carrying the grain arrive in Moroccan ports, workers transfer the grain onto the narrower boats to reach final destinations. The Moroccan feed mill owners would prefer that grain just initially arrive on smaller vessels.
And the Minnesota port would be happy to supply them.
In November, Minnesota Department of Agriculture Deputy Commissioner Andrea Vaubel and a representative of the soybean industry extended a trade trip to Spain with a quick visit across the Strait of Gibraltar to Morocco. Some six months later, the Moroccan grain buyers returned the favor by visiting Duluth.
"Our trade folks are always looking at statistics and trying to see what some emerging markets would make sense for Minnesotans," Vaubel said. "One of those popping up here and there has been North Africa."
Currently, most soy meal — a staple of livestock diets — is sent by train west to the Pacific Northwest or on barges down the Mississippi River. But a buyer in Morocco, via Duluth-Superior, could help firm up the commodity's price for Minnesota farmers.
"We've always said, 'Boy, it would be great to restart,'" Kim Nill, director of market development for Minnesota Soybean, said. "Because every once in a while there're strikes on the West Coast. Last summer, the Mississippi River was so low they were dragging bottom. And we thought, 'OK, it would be really a great time to diversify our routes, too.'"
The May 30 tour started in the basement of Elevator A, a towering, grey grain elevator on a manmade jetty. Built in 1908 and previously owned by General Mills, Elevator A's slip hasn't cradled a boat for loading in a decade.
Last year, Hansen-Mueller purchased the facility. Like an old arcade getting a shine down, staff have worked to refurbish the controls. The control room still lacks modern automation, operating on an older card system to label the contents of the bins.
"It's kind of a cool, old elevator," Blaskowski said. "We're getting it back up-and-running."
During a question-and-answer session, the Moroccans feed-mill representatives peppered Hansen-Mueller and MDA officials with questions.
"How do you know you have 600 tons?" Mikou asked.
"Everything we dump goes through a scale," Blaskowski said.
Another delegate asked where the elevators procured sugar beet pellets.
"It comes from the Red River Valley," Shawn Hanson, superintendent with Hansen-Mueller, said.
Afterward, Minnesota officials seemed pleased with the visit. Tangibly sizing-up the vintage grain elevator drew out practical questions but also admiration from the Moroccans.
Outside on a concrete jetty, the delegation stared up at Elevator A's grain chute — nicknamed "Big Thunder."
It's a chute that might someday spit out soybean meal onto a ship that — three weeks later — could end up feeding chickens across the Atlantic Ocean in Morocco, boosting profits for Minnesota farmers and re-energizing one of the iconic grain elevators rising from Lake Superior's westernmost port.