A long spell of hot, dry weather has left the Mississippi River so low that barge companies are reducing loadings just as Midwestern farmers prepare to harvest crops and ship tons of corn and soybeans downstream to the Gulf of Mexico.
The shipping restrictions are a headache for barge companies but more worrying for thousands of farmers who have watched drought scorch their fields for much of the summer. Now, they will face higher prices for transporting their remaining crops.
Bruce Peterson, a corn and soybean farmer in southeastern Minnesota, said with a wry smile that the dry weather had severely withered his crops and they didn’t need to worry too much about the high cost of transporting goods downstream.
“We haven’t had any rain here in weeks, so our crop yields are decreasing,” Peterson said. “Unfortunately, this has solved some of the problem.”
About 60% of U.S. grain exports are shipped by barge down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, where corn, soybeans and wheat are stored and eventually transferred to other ships. This is often a cheap and efficient way to transport crops, as a group of typically 15 barges tied together can carry the equivalent of about 1,000 trucks.
But as river levels dropped, costs soared. Freight rates southbound from St. Louis are currently 77% above the three-year average.
The price increase comes because the rivers south of St. Louis are currently not deep enough to accommodate typical barges, forcing companies to reduce the loads per vessel and reduce the number of barges on board.
North of St. Louis, a series of locks and dams secure a 9-foot-deep (2.7 m) channel that extends north to Minneapolis-St. Paul. But that’s not the case in the lower Mississippi.
“We’re keeping things going, but it’s going to take some rain and some help from Mother Nature,” said Merritt Lane, president of the New Orleans Canal Barge Company.
Canal barges operating on much of the Mississippi River and the Illinois and Ohio rivers had to lighten their loads so the barges could travel higher in the water. The company also can’t connect as many barges together because of the narrow channel, Lane said.
The narrow channel also means barges from different companies have to squeeze into limited space, forcing backups and delays.
This is the second year in a row that drought has caused water levels in the Mississippi River to drop to near record lows. The rainfall is likely to continue as no heavy rain is expected.
The shallow river is particularly striking given its height just a few months ago. Huge snowpacks in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin melted rapidly, forcing riverside communities like Davenport, Iowa, and Savannah, Illinois, to scramble to erect barriers in late April and early May to stay dry.
Tom Heinold, commander of the Corps of Engineers’ 312-mile (500-kilometer) Rock Island area, said that although the water receded quickly, it left behind mountains of underwater sand dunes, forcing the Corps of Engineers to “go crazy.” Ground dredging” to clear the waterway. The Mississippi River runs from northern Iowa south to Missouri.
“When the floods hit this spring, the situation became very difficult,” Heinold said. “In May and June, we were jumping very quickly from place to place trying to open pilot channels as water levels dropped.”
The northern section of the river is in good condition, but dredging continues south of St. Louis, Heinold said.
Months of dry and warm weather have hit the Midwest hard, damaging crops in much of the region west of the Mississippi River. According to reports, 40% of the soybean crop in Kansas is in poor or very poor condition, as is 40% of the corn crop in Missouri.
The Midwest grows most of the nation’s corn and soybeans. Nationwide, the good to excellent rating was just over 50%, the worst rating in more than a decade.
Additionally, transporting crops downstream is more expensive.
Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soybean Transportation Alliance, said many Midwestern farmers have multiple transportation options, including trucking and rail transportation for use at nearby ethanol and biodiesel plants and for processing into animal feed. But for grain exports from the U.S., the higher cost of transporting it along the Mississippi River hurts.
“This is how farmers in the middle of the United States connect to international markets,” said Steenhawk, whose organization advocates for efficient crop transportation systems. “It allows these farmers to transport their produce over long distances in a very efficient and very economical way.”
Rising barge costs eat directly into farmers’ profits, he said, at a time when U.S. soybean and corn exports face increasing international competition.
Jim Larson watches the water rise and fall with the seasons at his job on the Mississippi River in Red Wing, Minnesota. In his 30 years in the industry, he has experienced numerous droughts and floods, and says this has forced everyone who relies on the river to remain flexible.
“Some years you have floods, some years you have droughts, and sometimes both happen in the same year,” said Larson, manager of storage and grain loading company Red Wing Grain. “It’s crazy, both of those seem to be happening more and more lately, so you have to adapt and make changes based on the situations you’re given. Kind of keeps you on your toes.”