Bumper crop highlights infrastructure needs

October 30, 2014 8:00 am  •  By Benjamin Herrold, Missouri Farmer Today

With a possible record crop, state commodity groups say this year could spotlight places where Missouri’s crop-handling infrastructure needs improvement, whether that is on the state’s major rivers, highways or railroads.

The Oct. 10 USDA forecast projects record corn and soybean production for Missouri.

The Mississippi River and its barge traffic are a major part of the state’s crop transportation, and Missouri’s corn and soybean groups say the river needs upgrades.

“We certainly need some investment,” Dan Engemann, director of industry and producer relations for the Missouri Soybean Association, said. “The river infrastructure’s in great need of updating. The Mississippi River lock-and-dam system was built in the ’30s.”

Shane Kinne, director of public policy for the Missouri Corn Growers Association, also cites the system’s age.

“Our lock-and-dam system, especially on the Mississippi River, is in dire need of being upgraded,” he said. “The locks and dams are 80 years old. We’re kind of just getting by. . . . A crop as big as this year’s, you see those restrictions compounded.”

Congress passed the Water Resources Reform Development Act (WRRDA) this year to improve the Mississippi River’s infrastructure, but Engemann noted every year the money still must be appropriated for the improvements.

He said access to the Missouri and Mississippi rivers is “a huge advantage” to Missouri’s farmers. Seventy percent of the state’s soybeans are exported.

“America is very fortunate to have these huge rivers where our crops are grown,” he said.

The Mississippi River sees far more barge traffic than the Missouri River, although the Missouri should see more this year than in the past. Kinne says Missouri River funding is pulled between a focus on navigation or habitat restoration and recreation.

“The problem we’ve had recently with the Missouri River is the lack of investment in keeping the navigation channel open,” he said.

With higher water levels, the Missouri River will see extended barge traffic this year. The Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the river, announced above-normal releases on the four lower dams on the river in October, which will allow the Corps to keep navigation on the river open until Dec. 10, which is 10 days later than usual.

The port of Kansas City’s barge-shipping terminal will reopen after being closed since 2007. Also, for the first time in 21 years, MFA co-ops will have three facilities along the river loading barges, in Lexington, Glasgow and Jefferson City.

“A lot of stakeholders are very interested in barge traffic (on the Missouri River),” Engemann said.

As for moving crops over land, on Oct. 15 the Missouri Department of Transportation granted a waiver to allow farmers to increase weight limits by 10 percent. Overweight permits are not required, and the waiver lasts through Dec. 14.

Kinne said the Missouri Corn Growers Association requested the waiver, and it should be particularly helpful after rains delayed harvest.

“You’ll see some North Missouri farmers who’ll really benefit from that with the shorter window,” he said.

Kinne adds farmers need a long-term solution to the issue of weight limits.

“We’ve worked on that for a few years now,” he said. “Iowa and Kansas have higher weight limits than Missouri does. We also need to invest in our aging roadways.”

Engemann said the Missouri Soybean Association has received feedback from farmers who are taking advantage of the waiver.

He cites a University of Missouri Extension estimate if every farmer took advantage of the waiver, there could be $20 million in savings.

Another major issue this year is rail service. Engemann says about 27 percent of soybeans are moved to market by rail. Crops have to compete with other uses — like the North Dakota oil boom — for rail-car space. The bottleneck has affected northern states, and he says it could spill over into Missouri.

“This is one of the biggest crops Missouri has seen,” Kinne said. “It’ll definitely test our infrastructure. It highlights the fact we need to start taking a look at our infrastructure and investing in it.”