Steve Hobbs has spent the last several months hauling more than 60 truckloads of his 2016 grain crop from his farm near Mexico, Mo., to a nearby ethanol plant and MFA Agri Services of Laddonia. As Hobbs drives his loaded semi-truck across the rural roads, he tracks their conditions from two perspectives: as a farmer and as presiding commissioner of Audrain County.
Hobbs and his fellow commissioners are responsible for county infrastructure such as roads and bridges, which are a vital link for farmers and agribusinesses.
“Road conditions vary from county to county, but there’s constant pressure on county road budgets,” said Hobbs, who is also president of the County Commissioners Association of Missouri and previously served in the state legislature for eight years, including a stint as chairman of a transportation committee. “Farm-to-market lettered roads are deteriorating rapidly.”
Hobbs raised 1,100 acres of crops in 2016. He considers himself a small operator by local standards, but, like many other farmers, he’s hauling more grain these days. Over the years, U.S. farmers have steadily increased corn and soybean production. As yields rose and farm sizes grew, transportation methods and equipment changed.
“Almost every farmer around here has an 18-wheeler,” Hobbs said. “The frequency of our trips has gone way up, along with the weight of our loads.”
Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, shares Hobbs’s concerns. The coalition has long pushed for improved grain transportation modes, he said.
“When our roads and bridges were created decades ago, builders didn’t have the 21st century in mind,” Steenhoek said. “They weren’t designed for semis carrying 900 bushels of soybeans and 950 bushels of corn.”
Most rural communities have seen bridges closed or weight-restricted, and some roads are going from paved to gravel, he added.
“Rural roads and bridges are the most under-appropriated and under-recognized mode,” Steenhoek said. “Railroads and barges wouldn’t matter without roads. One hundred percent of all farm output must first move by roads. And the closer you get to the farm, the worse they get.”
Ag industry raises warning flags
While conditions of federal and state roads in MFA territory get high marks, rural roads don’t earn many accolades. TRIP, a non-profit transportation research group, offers these statistics to illustrate the problem across the U.S.:
15 percent of rural roads were rated as poor in 2013, and another 39 percent were in mediocre to fair condition.
11 percent of rural bridges were rated structurally deficient in 2014, and 10 percent were functionally obsolete.
Bad roads hurt agriculture’s bottom line
Poor road conditions mean more than a bumpy ride for farmers. They may affect the ability to export grain efficiently, which could hit U.S. farmers on the bottom line—especially in soybean-exporting states like Missouri.
America’s top soybean customer, China, imported 1.1 billion bushels from the U.S. during the 2014-2015 crop year. Steenhoek says that total Chinese imports are expected to increase to 2.7 billion bushels in 2023—much of which will come from the U.S.
The Missouri Soybean Association points out that other soybean-producing countries and regions are investing in their infrastructure.
“If we aren’t doing the same, it’s going to become more challenging to compete in the global marketplace,” said Casey Wasser, MSA’s director of policy.
Shane Kinne, director of public policy for Missouri Corn Growers Association, sees a large increase in on-farm storage, which spreads grain movement throughout the year.
“This gives growers more opportunity to strategically market their grain,” he said. “Our transportation network that moves grain out of the country is more reliable than a country like Brazil, but we have concerns about the direction our roadways are heading.”
As agribusiness grows, so does the use of roads and bridges. MFA deploys about 225 over-the-road trucks as well as other vehicles such as sprayers and fertilizer spreaders to move grain and farm supplies to and from 200 Agri Services and AGChoice locations in Missouri and surrounding states, according to Bill Dunn, director of transportation for MFA Incorporated. Besides deteriorating conditions, road congestion, especially on I-70, often poses a problem for MFA drivers, he added.
In neighboring Kansas, farmers are also driving along busier roads, said Norm Bowers, local road engineer for the Kansas Association of Counties.
“In most counties, car traffic hasn’t increased, but truck traffic is up due to increased agricultural production,” he said. “A lot of rural bridges are being closed due to a lack of funding.
By state ranking, we are third in the nation in number of road miles, and 33rd in population. That’s a lot of road miles, and the cost per person is high.”
Increasing weight limits may help
One solution to reduce traffic is to increase weight limits on roads and bridges. With higher weight limits, fewer vehicles would be needed to haul the same amount of product. The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, the Soy Transportation Coalition and other agricultural groups support the concept, as long as haulers spread the added weight over additional axles to minimize road and bridge wear and tear.
The Kansas legislature is currently considering a bill that would provide permits for increased weights with more axles, and Missouri lawmakers recently allowed grain haulers to transport 10 percent more than the legal weight limit, which is based on the distance between consecutive axles and total number of axles of the vehicle.
Funding isn’t keeping up
Each state collects federal and state fuel taxes to fund roads and bridges, and some of those funds are shared with counties and municipalities to maintain rural infrastructure. However, fuel tax revenues are falling as more efficient vehicles use less fuel. At the same time, the cost of construction and labor continues to rise, and many states divert state fuel tax funds to other purposes when they hit a budget crunch.
“America’s fuel taxes are unsustainable,” Steenhoek says. “They no longer pay what’s needed to build and maintain roads and bridges. We urge farmers to get active and urge state and local leaders to support increased funding for farm-to-market transportation infrastructure. Tax increases are unpopular, but we need to do a better job of selling the idea.”
Here’s a summary of taxes drivers in MFA country pay at the pump:
The federal excise tax is 18.4 cents a gallon for gasoline and 24.4 cents for diesel. These taxes haven’t increased since 1993.
Missouri has one of the lowest state fuel taxes in the nation at 17 cents a gallon for both gas and diesel, and this hasn’t gone up since 1996. All but three other states assess a higher gas and diesel tax.
In Arkansas, the gas tax stands at 21.5 cents per gallon, about 5 cents below the national average. The diesel tax is 22.5 cents. Arkansas ranks among the 15 states with the lowest fuel taxes.
Kansas last hiked fuel taxes in 2003 to 24 cents per gallon on gas and 26 cents for diesel; about two-thirds of all states assess higher fuel taxes than Kansas.
Iowa raised its fuel taxes as recently as July 2015, when it increased the gas tax to 30.8 cents a gallon and diesel to 32.5 cents.
While most rural groups agree that more needs to be spent on rural roads, Hobbs reports that the Missouri Department of Transportation is in a funding crunch.
“They’ve tried to get additional funding from the voters a couple of times, but now they’re closing bridges across the state,” he said. “I don’t know the answer, but if we go much longer, it will be a huge burden when we have to rebuild our roads and bridges.”
Farmers support more spending
In 2016, Missouri Farm Bureau testified in favor of a 6-cent state fuel tax increase to be submitted to the public for approval, but it failed to be moved out of the legislature. Another proposal to raise the fuel tax has been introduced for 2017. Missouri Farm Bureau President Blake Hurst says the organization supports additional funding through the fuel tax, sales tax and/or vehicle fees if MoDOT ensures fair distribution of funding between urban and rural areas.
“The last time we increased gas taxes in Missouri was in 1996, and the corn crop was around 350 million bushels,” Hurst said. “In 2016, Missouri farmers harvested around 600 million bushels of corn. That’s a huge increase in the use of farm-to-market roads, while inflation-adjusted road spending has been cut in half. Without a turnaround in funding, we face increasing delays and repair costs.”
The Missouri Soybean Association, which pegs the 2016 soybean harvest at a record 271 million bushels, also supports a modest fuel tax bump.
“In our fall 2016 policy survey, on a proposal to raise Missouri’s motor fuel tax to 22.9 cents per gallon, 59 percent of farmers favored the increase,” said MSA’s Wasser.
Surveys of Missouri Corn Growers members also reveal that farmers believe roads and bridges need increased investment.
“They’re willing to pay for it as long as rural roads get attention,” said Kinne. “Just this week I talked to a grower who changed the market he delivers to due to road conditions.”
Audrain County voters step up
Counties receive a share of state and federal fuel taxes. Still, it’s not enough. A few counties have hiked sales taxes to support better roads and bridges.
One such example is Hobbs’s Audrain County, where a 15-person crew maintains more than 200 bridges and 700 miles of roads operating on a $3 million annual budget. In 1985, voters approved a half-cent sales tax for bridge replacement. The funds were used to replace 170 bridges 20 feet or longer in the county, with the last two scheduled to be replaced in the next couple of years. That half-cent sales tax expired in 2010.
Audrain County voters recently approved another quarter-cent sales tax that provides $600,000 to replace smaller bridges. Hobbs estimates it will take 10 to 20 years to complete those projects.
“Our most recent sales tax increase passed easily, but a lot of counties don’t have that kind of support,” Hobbs said. “Funds are there for us in Audrain County, and we’re getting closer to meeting farmers’ needs. For some other counties, things are getting critical.”
After Sam Gosche passed away in 1985, the general store he owned and operated sat uninhabited and unused, except for storage, for nearly 30 years. While walking
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out of church one Sunday in early April 2014, now retired MFA precision account sales manager Kenny Schlitt heard rumors of its demolition.
“My brother and neighbor were talking about getting together before they tore the building down,” Schlitt said. “So being nosy, I asked them, ‘What building?’ and they told me it was the store.”
The Gosche General store (formerly Caney General Store) was built in the early 1900s by Frank Amrhein in Oran, Mo., where Schlitt grew up and still resides on three acres. Amrhein was a logger by trade, and the nearby Caney Creek Station was a small railroad depot on the route to St. Louis.
“Amrhein built a two-story originally,” Schlitt said. “The bottom floor was half-store and half-living quarters for the Amrhein family. The second story was bedrooms and a dance hall. The story goes when they danced, the whole building shook, and I can believe it.”
According to Schlitt, the store caught fire sometime in the 1920s. Amrhein salvaged what he could from the structure and separated the living quarters from the store when he rebuilt. Roughly 20 years later, Amrhein sold the store to Sam Gosche, just before the start of World War II.
Gosche went into the military but struck a deal with Amrhein before he left.
“Sam told Frank he wanted to sell the store to him for $1,” Schlitt said. “If he made it home from the war, Frank agreed he would sell it back to him. And that’s what happened. Sam went to war and came back. He got malaria during the war, but still came back and took over the store.”
According to the Missouri Census Data Center, the population of Oran hovered around 1,100 people throughout the 1940s and ’50s. Part polling place, grocery and feed store, event center and Sunday afternoon respite, the general store functioned as the community gathering place for decades. That’s how Schlitt remembers the general store best.
“My grandpa’s farm and house were about an eighth of a mile east from where the store was located,” Schlitt said. “So my dad, my aunts and uncles, my neighbors and friends all went by that store. It’s hard telling how many times they put their hand on this old counter.”
So that day in April after church when Schlitt overheard his brother and his neighbor talking about demolishing the old, dilapidated building, he thought about the significance it held.
“My wife [Mary] had never seen it,” Schlitt said. “So we asked if we could come down and take a look. When we walked in, you could just feel all the emotion from years ago and all the people who were there.” Schlitt spent some time reflecting on the memories inside the store, even contemplating moving the old counter to his place, but ultimately he and Mary left that day without giving it further thought.
But Schlitt was struck with another idea on his way to Farmington, Mo., for work one day.
“I started seeing all of these houses and old barns on rock foundations,” Schlitt said. “Then I started thinking about a house we had moved in ’69 off the farm and into town. I thought, ‘We can move that thing.’ On my way home, I stopped at the neighbors’ and asked him, ‘What would you say if I were to move that store out to my house?’ And he said, ‘Today, it’d be free.’”
Schlitt called Johnson House Movers in Senath, Mo., and they were willing to take on the job. Preparation for the move took about 12 days total once the foundation on Schlitt’s property was finished. The actual move only took about 30-40 minutes. “The store only moved 1.25 miles from its original location,” Schlitt said. “We started about 8:15 in the morning, and it was sitting over here on the foundation about 8:45. They came down the road at 15 miles per hour.”
Once the movers left, restoration began.
Schlitt wanted to restore the building to its 1940s condition—back to the way he and so many others remember it. The store was moved July 22, 2014, and by January 2015, Schlitt completed most of the renovations, which included repairing and repainting the siding and sealing the roof. He also installed exterior doors from his great-grandfather’s house built in 1912. All of the windows were fixed or replaced. It continues to be a work in progress as Schlitt adds farming and local memorabilia to the interior.
Eventually, Schlitt plans to hold monthly events at the store with the proceeds going to Alzheimer’s research, he said.
“My grandmother and a few other family members have had Alzheimer’s,” Schlitt explained. “Victims of Alzheimer’s might not remember seeing you today, but they might remember something that happened 40 years ago.”
“It’s kind of like we’re just going back in time to a much simpler life,” he said.
Technology can connect virtually anything these days. Computers are connected to tablets, which are connected to phones, which are connected to numerous other devices. Now, that connectivity extends to irrigation equipment in the field.
In January, Valley Irrigation, based in Valley, Neb., unveiled a smart panel for center pivot irrigators that could change the game for growers like Scott Everidge, who operates a 3,000-acre farm in Dooley County, Ga. The cotton, peanut, corn, wheat and soybean grower was one of the pilot testers for Valley’s new ICON series, which allows for app-based remote management of center pivots.
Everidge says connectivity and ease of use are what sets this new product apart and offers advantages for his 2,500 acres that are under pivots.
“We do a lot of multi-cropping, so we do a lot of pivot moving—picking cotton, mowing stalks, putting in cover crops,” Everidge said. “When you have 40 pivots, the ease of not getting in and out of a tractor all day long made my job just a little bit easier. I think back to my dad in the ’70s; everything was diesel-operated with generators at the pivot point. We had 10 pivots and a flying service, and my dad worked seven days a week. Now I’m 45 years old. I’m running 40 irrigation pivots, a flying service, bookkeeping and three trucks, and I have five hired guys. All this system is going to do is make my life easier.”
After on-farm pilot testing, Valley released four models of these smart irrigation panels for sale to the public: the ICON 10, the ICON 5, the ICON 1 and the ICON X. The smart technology is based on the idea that better control remotely allows for better water and fertilizer management practices, according to Len Adams, president of global irrigation at Valmont Industries, parent company of Valley Irrigation.
“Fresh water availability is very limited,” Adams said. “Of all the water in the world, only 3 percent is fresh water, and of that 3 percent, two-thirds is in the ice caps. Of the last one-third, agriculture uses two-thirds. With limited water and expected population growth, the issue is how we continue to feed the world. What we provide is a way to achieve this while using every precious drop of water in the most efficient way.”
In 2014, Valmont acquired 51-percent ownership of AgSense, a technology company based in South Dakota. Through this partnership, Valley extended its connectivity and data-gathering capabilities. AgSense offers a cloud-based app that allows growers to monitor field conditions and farming operations through smart devices, much like Valley’s own BaseStation 3, also a remote-operated irrigation management system. By teaming up, both companies cornered more of the market share. The ICON panels are compatible with both AgSense and BaseStation 3 telemetry and offer “edge-of-field WiFi” technology, meaning that a grower can connect to the machine based on proximity without needing a cellular connection or transmitting data radio signals.
Operated with touchscreen controls, the ICON app’s interface is simple with customizable screens giving growers preference options and varying data collection abilities, including soil moisture, soil chemistry, as-applied water and weather history. The ability to set variable-rate irrigation prescriptions also comes standard on the new ICON models. The panels’ modular design allows older Valley analog equipment to be upgraded and lends compatibility with other center pivot brands.
“It’s the only product that sits on a field almost year-round,” Steve Kaniewski, Valmont’s president and chief operating officer, said. “So, we have a unique ability to provide data from the fields, but to do that we have get the analog equipment to now move into the new millennium.”
Valley products are distributed all over the world, including places like South Africa, Dubai, New Zealand, Australia, Argentina and Brazil, Kaniewski added.
“We’re in 23 countries,” he said. “In the irrigation space, anywhere that it makes sense for agriculture, you’ll find us.”
Such global distribution is important because water consumption is a global issue, said John Campbell, Valmont’s manager of technology advancement and adoption, pointing out that the world’s population is estimated to reach 8.5 billion within the next 15 years and 9.7 billion before 2050.
“Even though they’re already impressively efficient, the world’s farmers are going to be tasked with becoming even more so,” Campbell said. “They’re going to be asked to produce higher yields with fewer inputs, including water. The key to that efficiency is technology.”