Officials with the Soy Transportation Coalition say the Army Corps of Engineers has done a great job dredging. They are also encouraged by the improved snowpack in areas like Montana and Idaho, and precipitation through the midsection of the country late last fall and this winter. As a result, they are optimistic that water levels on the Mississippi River and its tributaries are rebounding and could be back to normal by this spring.
“Normally, it costs about 80 cents to get the soybeans or the corn from where I’m at to New Orleans,” said Allen Pace, a farmer who grows corn, soy and wheat on his farm in LaCenter, Kentucky, just a few miles from where the Ohio River empties into the Mississippi. “This year, it’s costing close to between $2.50 and $2.90 for the same bushel to go down the river.”
But the low water levels on the Mississippi have left him with fewer shipping options, so he’s paying a lot more to send his harvest by barge. He’s feeling the higher cost of transport in the other direction too — paying more for products like fertilizer coming up the Mississippi.
"I think they call it farming,” Pace said. “It’s pretty tough when you get squeezed on both ends.”
The Mississippi moves about 60% of the U.S. soy and corn bound for other parts of the world, according to the USDA.
For soy alone, most U.S. exports are sent abroad between September and February, according to Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition.
“This is game time for the U.S. soybean industry and the fact that our inland waterways system is still not operating as normal – it’s analogous to attaching a garden hose to a fire hydrant,” Steenhoek said.
Most barges can easily accommodate at least 50,000 bushels, “but every time you have 1 foot less of water at your disposal, you are putting 5,000 fewer bushels of soybeans per barge out of concern that if you load these barges to their normal standards, you could encounter a grounding. You could scrape the bottom,” he said.
But recent rains and continual dredging are raising hopes for a better spring.
Mike Steenhoek, Executive Director of the Soy Transportation Coalition says, “When you look at the river gauges at these various points on the inland waterway system, points like Memphis,
Tennessee and St. Louis. We’re seeing water levels that are equal to or at least comparable to what we saw at this time last year.”
Now, while that is encouraging Steenhoek says it takes time to get barge and river traffic back to normal after trauma like last fall with record low water levels. Some barges are not positioned where they normally would be, so there are logistical issues yet to work through. He says, “So, it’s very much anticipated you’re going to see some of these shippers, whether they’re on the outbound side or on the inbound side that are still having some hiccups or some challenges with getting the kind of service that they normally would expect, just because it takes time to get back to normal.”
He says this will impact the movement of not only the grain being moved south on the river into export channels but also inputs and other products being moved north to be put in place for the 2023 growing season.
Steenhoek says they are also working with the Army Corps of Engineers to continue dredging efforts along the Mississippi, Illinois and other areas of the inland waterway system to get ahead of the next problem or crisis.