Farmers Realize the Importance of Mississippi River

December 8, 2009

Nick learns about driving a barge, among other things, at the Great Rivers Museum

Illinois farmer Joe Zumwalt knows exactly where 90 to 95 percent of his corn and soybean crops end up. In fact, he drives by his harvest everyday.

“My grain comes straight out of the field to an elevator and directly on the barges headed to the Gulf of Mexico where it gets exported,” said Zumwalt, who farms 4500 acres of corn and soybeans near Quincy, Ill., which sits on the Mississippi River. “I drive by the river every morning, and I know that’s my grain in those barges.”

Zumwalt’s proximity to the river means that his livelihood depends on the efficiency of the river system. But farmers from all over the United States rely on the river for their well-being too. Take Nebraska farmer Ryan Weeks, for example. Though he lives hundreds of miles away from Zumwalt, the river system affects his corn and soybean operation in central Nebraska.

“A large amount of dry fertilizer is transported via the river,” said Weeks. “The river also gives us the ability to ship DDGs (dried distillers grains, a by-product of ethanol production) downriver and overseas. Shipping via the river plays a large part in serving our customers, allowing farmers to remain reliable suppliers to overseas customers.”

Having an efficient river system for transportation of goods is necessary for U.S. farmers to get their crops to market. That’s why farmers like Weeks and Zumwalt and farmer-member organizations, such as the National Corn Growers Association and the American Soybean Association, support upgrades to the lock and dam system on the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers.

History of the Lock and Dam System

The Mississippi River is the main shipping channel for farmers’ products and inputs. According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the 29 locks and dams on the Upper Mississippi, 78 million tons of goods valued at more than $23 billion move up and down the river each year.

The lock and dam system was built between 1930 and 1940 to establish a nine-foot channel for shipping on the Upper Mississippi River. The river below St. Louis is naturally deep and wider and, therefore, did not need lock and dams. As one video at the Great Rivers Museum at the Melvin Price Lock and Dam in Alton, Ill., stated: if it wasn’t for the lock and dam system, shipping could only occur on the upper part of the river for approximately six months out of the year.

At the time of construction, a 600-foot long lock was sufficient to accommodate shipping. However, barges can now extend up to 15 barges long by 3 barges wide, or 1200 feet by 110 feet. Only three of the 29 locks can accommodate 15 barge tows: Lock 19 at Keokuk, Iowa; Lock 26 at Alton and Lock 27 at Granite City, Ill. These larger locks allow barges to enter and leave within 30 to 45 minutes.

When barges approach the other 26 locks (there are two locks at St. Anthony’s Falls in Minnesota that do not have numbers and two near Winona, Minn., that are numbered 5 and 5A) , they must break up the tows into two groups. The process to break up the tow, move both groups of barges through the lock and reattach the tow can take at least 2 to 3 hours. To put this in perspective, the Corps of Engineers estimates that it takes one-and-a-half weeks for a barge tow to travel from Minneapolis to New Orleans.

Shipping grain via barge is the cheapest and most efficient method. One 15-barge tow ships 787,500 bushels. It would take 225 grain rail cars or 870 semi trucks to ship the same amount of grain. A barge tow also only uses one gallon of fuel to travel 515 miles.

A view from the top of the Melvin Price Lock and Dam

Problems with infrastructure

Zumwalt said breaking the tows causes “a huge slowdown in the system.” He also said many of the locks are crumbling.

“Most of these locks were built in the 1930s,” he said. “You don’t see too many streets that have 70-year-old concrete nowadays. It’s discouraging sight to see the state of the infrastructure.”

Congress passed the Water Resources Development Act in 2007, which authorized the lock and dam upgrades to be eligible for funding. The bill also calls for funding of hundreds of water, environmental and flood control projects around the country as well. The funding has not been approved yet.

Zumwalt is a member of the Upper Mississippi, Illinois and Missouri Rivers Association (UMIMRA), which aims to educate the public about the importance of navigation, flood control and environmental issues for all three rivers. He takes every opportunity he can to promote UMIMRA and the importance of the lock and dam system.

“There will be a need for more transportation on the river in the future,” Zumwalt said. “We need to get past authorizing bills and put dollars toward the project. The river system affects the economy of everyone in the country. It’s amazing the lock and dam system has gotten this bad.”

“If we continue to ignore infrastructure needs to move products, we will handcuff the ag economy,” Weeks said.

Zumwalt is particularly concerned about the “handcuffing” of agriculture. 90 percent of his crop is non-biotech. He grows non-biotech corn because there is very little insect pressure in his area and there’s a market for it in Japan, where much of his grain probably ends up. He has experienced yield increases of 10 – 20 percent since 1999, which he attributes “some to Mother Nature and some to genetics.”

“When you look at the production potential over the next 20 to 30 years, I think we can produce 30 to 50 percent more than today,” Zumwalt said. “The water and rail infrastructure cannot handle a 50 percent increase in production. The sad part, for me as an American farmer, is watching other countries, like Brazil, build their infrastructure.”

And if Zumwalt and Weeks can’t deliver crops to overseas markets, that’s a problem.

“If we lose overseas business, my profit takes a hit also, and prices fall due to supply glut,” Weeks said.

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