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More production, same infrastructure

Focus on inland waterways important for competitive advantage

When it comes to the ability to produce more with less, U.S. agriculture is a proven performer. Look at a chart of yield trends over the decades. The lines go up and to the right—consistently. Farmers have leveraged precision technology, biotech, new crop-management tools and advances in equipment to deliver increased yield from each acre planted.

Yet, there’s a flip side to that success. As an industry, we must move more grain than ever through an aging transportation infrastructure, and in particular, a long-neglected river infrastructure.

With harvest grain to move downstream and fertilizer to move upstream, autumn is a reminder that the inland water system spidering across the Midwest is usually a geological gift to commodity transportation. Current water levels on the lower Mississippi prove it’s a gift with limits—both natural and manmade.

ErnieThis year, general increases in ag production bumped into the challenge of shallower barge drafts. The result is smaller loads per barge and more barges required to haul the same bushels. It’s a situation that can create freight shortages similar to other challenges we have seen in the system recently.
I mention increased agricultural output because that extra stress on the system isn’t obvious to those outside agriculture or transportation. For perspective on what we are putting into our grain storage and transportation infrastructure, I like how MFA Senior Director of Plant Foods Chris DeMoss explains it. He talks about corn acreage and yield since 1979, a year considered outstanding at the time.

In 1979, U.S. agriculture produced 7.9 billion corn bushels on 81.3 million acres. Skip forward to 2021, and corn acres are still in the same range at 85.4 million, but production reached 15.1 billion bushels. That’s a lot of additional bushels working through our transportation system and onto rivers with similar, if not the same, improvements as they had in 1979.

One way to look at the river system is as a perennial gift because it delivers a competitive advantage to U.S. growers as low-cost exporters. More than 70% of our nation’s grain exports move on water, saving between $7 and $9 billion annually compared to other shipping methods. We honed that advantage over the years with work upstream, building locks and dams that stretch the function of rivers for transport. On free-flowing river bodies like the Missouri, wing dams and channel management help to extend navigation utility.

All those tons on the river are fewer tons on the road. Remember that extra 7.2 billion bushels of corn gained since 1979? It equals about 8.5 million truckloads.

The message needs to be clear—river infrastructure spending should be a regular and significant focus rather than being kicked down the road to be included only in blow-out spending bills.

River maintenance must include dredging to keep sufficiently deep channels for barge navigability and the repair and construction of wing dams, which direct river flow and maintain deep channels. Add to that proper emphasis on navigation regarding the Missouri River Manual and flow from upstream reservoirs.

Lock-and-dam maintenance, repair and expansion are crucial to aging river infrastructure. On that front, omnibus federal infrastructure legislation has delivered some promise on the Mississippi. Just north of the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, the 80-plus-year-old Lock and Dam No. 25 was allocated $732 million to build a new 1,200-foot lock chamber alongside the existing 600-foot chamber. The addition will speed transportation and provide redundancy with the existing 600-foot lock, reducing the risk of river shutdowns. Work started this spring, with the design period expected to last through 2026. The new lock chamber should be commissioned by 2034.

But that’s just a start, and you can see that, even when funded, improvements aren’t speedy.

Another way to look at infrastructure is as a gift from the past—from the people who built it and paid for it. We owe them maintenance and the vision to build on their investment.

There will be weather-related challenges on any river. But they are temporary. Ignored infrastructure, on the other hand, is failure in slow motion. Maybe it’s time we listen to Theodore Roosevelt who said, “The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased and not impaired in value.” The rivers can be a real competitive advantage.

CLICK HERE to read more from this November Today's Farmer Magazine.

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