Low water on Mississippi impacting barge traffic amidst busy harvest season

There’s a fear that things could get worse as the drought impacts the Mississippi River levels and the barge traffic that travels it every day.
Published: Oct. 4, 2022 at 10:25 PM CDT
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ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) - Third-generation farmer Doug Roettger says the drought is impacting his St. Charles County farm in several ways.

“The soybeans are a little smaller than usual, but they’re yielding good,” said Roettger.

But he’s not getting as much for his harvest these days.

“Lower price here at the elevator, just a lower price all around,” he explained.

There’s a fear that things could get worse as the drought impacts the Mississippi River levels and the barge traffic that travels it every day.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Grain Transportation Report released last week said that 1,890 grain barges have unloaded in New Orleans since Sept. 1, about 39% fewer than the five-year average.

“The tight barge supply is problematic for grain shippers heading into harvest,” the report stated. “Unless barge supply improves, the increased demand for barges from grain shippers during harvest will likely put even more upward pressure on barge rates.”

The National Weather Service in St. Louis is keeping an eye on the levels, and officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said normally, tows are able to move 36 barges at a time. With the water level so low, shippers have voluntarily agreed to cut that to 25 barges.

“Less bushels are getting hauled, so it costs more to do that, costs more for business and for farmers,” said Mark Borgmann, the manager of MFA Agri Services in Wentzville.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, transporting a ton of soybeans – loaded along the Mid-Mississippi River (i.e. – the region between St. Paul and St. Louis) costs $51.02 per ton during the week ending on September 20, 2022. For the week ending September 21, 2021 (one year earlier), the same shipment cost $38.30 – the cost saw a 33% increase in a year.

“Unfortunately, precipitation over the next month is expected to be limited – further exacerbating the shipping challenges. When combined with an overall supply chain under stress, agricultural shippers are expecting some difficulties in getting soybeans and grain to market,” said Mike Steenhoek, Executive Director, Soy Transportation Coalition.