The lower Mississippi River limits barges just as farmers want to move their crops downstream

By | September 17, 2023

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — A long stretch of hot, dry weather has left the Mississippi River so low that barge companies are reducing their loads just as Midwestern farmers prepare to harvest crops and ship tons of corn and soybeans downriver to the Gulf of Mexico.

The transportation restrictions are a headache for barge companies, but they are even more worrisome for thousands of farmers who have seen drought burn their fields for much of the summer. Now they will face higher prices to transport what’s left of their crops.

Farmer Bruce Peterson, who grows corn and soybeans in southeastern Minnesota, chuckles wryly that the dry weather has wilted his family’s crop so extensively that they won’t have to worry as much about the high cost of transporting goods downstream .

“It hasn’t rained here for several weeks, so our crop size is getting smaller,” Peterson said. “Unfortunately, this solved part of the problem.”

About 60% of U.S. grain exports are transported on barges up the Mississippi to New Orleans, where corn, soybeans and wheat are stored and eventually transferred to other ships. It’s usually a cheap and efficient way to transport crops, as a typical group of 15 barges tied together carries as much cargo as about 1,000 trucks.

But as river levels have fallen, that cost has risen dramatically. The cargo rate from St. Louis south is now up 77% over the three-year average.

Prices have risen because the river south of St. Louis doesn’t remain deep enough now to accommodate typical barges, forcing companies to load less onto each vessel and bundle fewer barges together.

North of St. Louis, a series of locks and dams provide a 9-foot (2.7-meter) deep canal to Minneapolis-St. Paul. But that’s not the case in the lower Mississippi.

“We’re keeping things moving, but we might need some rain and some help from Mother Nature,” said Merritt Lane, president of the Canal Barge Company of New Orleans.

Canal Barge, which handles much of the Mississippi as well as the Illinois and Ohio rivers, has had to lighten loads so barges can travel higher in the water. The company also can’t connect as many barges together because the shipping lane is narrower, Lane said.

A narrow shipping lane also means barges from multiple companies have to squeeze into a limited space, forcing backups and delays.

This is the second consecutive year that drought has caused the Mississippi to fall to record lows. With no significant precipitation expected, it is likely to continue falling.

The shallow river is especially surprising given how high the river was just a few months ago. A huge blanket of snow in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin quickly melted, forcing riverside communities like Davenport, Iowa, and Savanna, Illinois, to hastily erect barriers to stay dry in late April and early May .

Although the floodwaters receded quickly, they left behind mountains of underwater sand, forcing the Corps of Engineers to “dredge like crazy” to clear a shipping channel, said Tom Heinold, who commands the Rock Island District of the Corps extending 312 miles (500 kilometers) of the Mississippi from northern Iowa south to Missouri.

“After the flood this spring, the situation was delicate,” Heinold said. “In May and June we were jumping very quickly from place to place to try to open the pilot channels as the water came down.”

The northern reaches of the river are now in good condition, but dredging continues south of St. Louis, Heinold said.

Months of dry, hot weather have hit the Midwest hard, damaging crops in much of the region west of the Mississippi River. In Kansas, 40% of the soybean crop was reported in poor or very poor condition, with the same conditions for 40% of the corn crop in Missouri.

The Midwest grows most of the nation’s corn and soybeans. The percentage rated good to excellent nationally was just over 50%, the worst rating in more than a decade.

Then there is the higher cost of shipping crops down the river.

Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, said many Midwestern farmers have multiple transportation options, including trucking and rail shipping for use at nearby ethanol and biodiesel plants and for processing into feed for animals. But for grain exported from the United States, the higher cost of shipping up the Mississippi is detrimental.

“It’s how farmers in the central United States connect to the international market,” said Steenhoek, whose group advocates for effective crop transportation systems. “It allows these farmers to have a very efficient way to move their produce over long distances very economically.”

Rising barge costs directly impacting farmers’ profits come at a time when American soybean and corn exports face increased international competition, he said.

From his workplace beside the Mississippi River in Red Wing, Minnesota, Jim Larson watches the river rise and fall through the seasons. He has seen numerous droughts and floods over the course of 30 years in business and said it forces everyone who relies on the river to remain agile.

“Some years we have floods, other years we have droughts and sometimes both in the same year,” said Larson, manager of Red Wing Grain, a grain storage and loading company. “It’s crazy and it seems like we’re having more of both lately, so you have to be adaptable and change with the situation you’re given. It kind of keeps you on your toes.”

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