Five freight containers filled with 3,500, 50-pound bags of soy flour recently were shipped from the Port of Virginia to Afghanistan as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food for Progress program.

The final destination is 5,000 pregnant and nursing women and their families in that war-torn country.

But the shipment also highlights changes in the way many foodstuffs will be exported from the United States in the future.

"I’ve got a feeling containers are going to be the coming thing for exports, and Virginia ports are ready for the change," said Bruce Hall, a national director of the American Soybean Association. "I think Virginia has a bright future there, and we’ll need that as far as exports are concerned. The company we went to for exporting the flour explained how using containers makes sales and shipping much more flexible."

For decades large shipments of grain and soybean products have been shipped in bulk container ships. But Hall said industry experts told him foreign buyers are asking for more raw foodstuffs to be shipped in containers to save time and money in transporting them to their final destinations. Container ships can be offloaded at many more ports than traditional grain ships, and since the Port of Virginia has been building new container ship terminals, Hall expects more foodstuffs will be shipped that way.

"It was good to see American soybeans going to a humanitarian cause," he said. "My understanding is this soy flour will be distributed by the Afghanistan Ministry of Women’s Affairs, and folks over there will show them how to use it. Something like 25 percent of children in Afghanistan die before their fifth birthdays, so this will be helpful to them."

And with one-quarter of U.S. soybeans now being exported, Hall said the importance of overseas sales continues to grow for Virginia farmers. "Soybeans were the top U.S. ag export in 2010, and it’s expected to stay the same in 2011."