FARM SECTION: Maintaining river access important to farmers, business

A tow switching barges pulls an empty barge along the side of one filled with soybeans at an Archer Daniels Midland grain river terminal along the Mississippi River in Sauget, Ill. The Mississippi River plays a key role on the bottom line of many farmers
Posted: Feb. 11, 2013 11:57 am Updated: Mar. 11, 2013 12:15 pm

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

David Gay doesn't have to look farther than his cornfield to know the impact the Mississippi River has on his bottom line.

A Japanese miller contracts with Gay to raise a certain variety of corn, keep it separate from the rest of his crop and deliver it to ADM in Quincy for shipping down river by barge and onto Japan.

"We receive a premium to do that. It's a good opportunity to make a little extra income," Gay said. "It's all possible because we have access to the river."

Maintaining that access became even more important as continued dry conditions pushed the river to record lows from St. Louis south, threatening barge traffic heading both north and south.

"A lot of fertilizer is shipped upriver. If the river were to be closed for an extended period, it would really be an issue for us to have fertilizer available for planting," Gay said.

"Planting could be early. Those fertilizer supplies need to be in place ahead of time, unloaded, delivered out to warehouses in the countryside so they can be applied. That takes time. We're kind of getting in the critical time period for that to happen."

Just as critical is the need for more moisture for farm fields and for the river.

"Most people felt the river industry would replenish itself with snowfall to the north and have waters to operate successfully in the spring, but that hasn't happened yet. We aren't going to replenish water levels in the river unless we have major snows or above normal rainfall this spring," said Jerry Jenkins, general manager of Ursa Farmers Cooperative.

UFC loaded barges as usual in the fall but typically doesn't in December, January and February to avoid winter weather delays.

"Now as we get closer to March, we're concerned, but we're not to the point of panic," Jenkins said. "It can get wet fast."

Even without the river, UFC has options to move its corn and soybeans to local markets like ethanol plants and processors.

"There are rail markets we can get to, but for a company like Ursa, an export-oriented company, a barge loading company, that increases our costs, or widens our basis, which is a direct impact on producers," Jenkins said. "We can become the most efficient and reward producers far better by using the services of the river."

Most years, Jenkins worries about river levels being too high in the spring, but he's hopeful the low levels will turn around.

"We're optimistic we do have enough moisture to plant a crop. We're optimistic there will be spring rain to help farmers produce a good crop and also to replenish the river transportation system," he said. "It's the most efficient form of transportation this country has."

Gay, president of the Pike County Farm Bureau, said it's important for farmers and others who rely on the river to highlight navigation issues.

"If we're not going to talk about it, nobody is," he said.

He helped rally statewide support by spearheading a "sense of the delegate" resolution adopted by Illinois Farm Bureau at its annual meeting in December asking President Barack Obama and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to act as quickly as possible to maintain river levels to maintain navigation.

"One thing we hope to gain from this is to make people aware of how important the river transportation system is," Gay said. "It's especially important to farmers, but it's also important to the entire Midwestern economy and the national economy. Hopefully we're bringing some attention to that so we can move forward on projects to improve the locks and dams and maintain river levees, things the public may not think about."