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As Harvest Unfolds, Mississippi River Transportation Issues Persist

Associated Press writer Scott McFetridge reported on the front page of Saturday’s Des Moines Register that, “A long stretch of hot, dry weather has left the Mississippi River so low that barge companies are reducing their loads just as Midwest farmers are preparing to harvest crops and send tons of corn and soybeans downriver to the Gulf of Mexico.

Des Moines Register (Front Page – September 23, 2023).

“The transport restrictions are a headache for barge companies, but even more worrisome for thousands of farmers who have watched drought scorch their fields for much of the summer. Now they will face higher prices to transport what remains of their crops.”

McFetridge explained that, “About 60% of U.S. grain exports are taken by barge down the Mississippi to New Orleans, where the corn, soybeans and wheat are stored and ultimately transferred to other ships. It’s usually an inexpensive, efficient way to transport crops, as a typical group of 15 barges lashed together carries as much cargo as about 1,000 trucks.

But as river levels drop, that cost has soared.

The cargo rate from St. Louis southward is now up 77% above the three-year average.

“Prices have risen because the river south of St. Louis does not remain consistently deep enough now to accommodate typical barges, forcing companies to load less into each vessel and string fewer barges together.  North of St. Louis, a series of locks and dams guarantees a 9-foot-deep (2.7-meter) channel as far north as Minneapolis-St. Paul. But that’s not the case in the lower Mississippi.”

The AP article reminded readers that, “This is the second straight year drought has caused the Mississippi to drop to near-record lows. With no significant rain in the forecast, it’s likely to keep falling.”

Saturday’s article added that, “Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, said many Midwest farmers have multiple transport options, among them trucking and shipment by train for use by nearby ethanol and biodiesel plants and for processing into animal feed. But for grain exported from the U.S., the higher cost of shipping down the Mississippi hurts.

“‘It’s the way that farmers in the middle of the United States connect with the international marketplace,’ said Steenhoek, whose group advocates for effective crop transportation systems. ‘It allows these farmers to have a very efficient way of moving their products a long distance in a very economical manner.'”

Earlier this month, USA Today also highlighted Mississippi River transportation concerns, while Bloomberg News recently reported on the cost of moving grain down the river.

Keith Good Photo

Keith Good is the Farm Policy News editor for the farmdoc project. He has previously worked for the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, and compiled the daily News Summary from 2003-2015. He is a graduate of Purdue University (M.S.- Agricultural Economics), and Southern Illinois University School of Law.

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