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Farmers face 278% price increase for barge transportation

Low water levels on the Mississippi River have snarled barge traffic, making it more expensive to move soybeans downriver.

MOLINE, Ill. — As farmers continue to finish up the fall harvest, they are facing another challenge off the field; the increasing cost of using barges to transport their crops for export. 

For months we've been covering the exceptionally low water levels on the Mississippi River. The dramatic images from south of the Quad Cities show massive sandbars, stranded barges, boats and other debris littering the shorelines of a once-full river. 

Widespread drought across much of the United States has led to lower water flow incoming from tributary rivers, stretching both west and east of the Mississippi River. 

"What is really kind of unique about this situation is that the whole inland waterway system, particularly the Mississippi River, is experiencing this sustained period of low water, and it couldn't come at a less convenient [time]," says Mike Steenhoek, executive director with Soy Transporation Coalition. "For a barge getting loaded in a location like the Quad Cities, we were seeing a 278 percent increase in the cost of moving that freight versus the same period last year," says Steenhoek. 

Here in the Quad Cities, we have a system of locks and dams that can help hold water back, keeping the levels higher. However, once you move south, past St. Louis, the Mississippi River becomes a free-flowing river, with no further locks or dams to manage the water flow and level. That's why the images coming out of places like Memphis, Tennesee, are so dramatic. 

Credit: WQAD

When you break down how much product a barge can hold, you can see why it's the most popular choice for shipping. Not to mention, there are several grain elevators located along the Mississippi River which flows next to expansive areas of agricultural land. One barge can hold as many as 16 rail hopper cars and more than 60 semis worth of soybeans. With diesel prices remaining high, a barge is a more economical way to transport these goods after harvest. 

"It really is one of the secrets to our success in the international market," says Steenhoek. 

Speaking of the international market, the race is on for our farmers to get their harvest to that market. By early next year, the soybean harvest from South America will be coming online and only add even more competition to farmers here in the United States, especially if they miss their normal delivery window. 

"What we do need is to have a transportation system that can efficiently move product from point A to point B and it's not happening right now," says Steenhoek. 

You can hear our full interview with Mike Steenhoek by listening to our Podcast, Head in the Clouds, here

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