Low water levels hurting agriculture exports from Tri-State

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Published: Oct. 26, 2022 at 7:57 PM EDT
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EVANSVILLE, Ind. (WFIE) - It’s harvest season. As farmers look to sell the grain they’ve harvested, they’re met with a roadblock, lying in the waterways.

“They can’t load the barges as full as they used to, because it makes the draft too deep, and they’ll drag the bottom of the Mississippi River because it’s at a 100-year low,” said Joe Steinkamp, an Evansville farmer.

Steinkamp’s spent his past weeks making trips to and from the grain elevator. His personal storage bins are nearing capacity, because the transportation of grain via barge has been severely slowed due to low water levels.

“The elevator today, we don’t notice a difference, except that the barges are sitting a lot lower in the Ohio River than they typically do, because the Ohio River is low,” Steinkamp said.

Steinkamp is facing the same problem for farmers who send their product down the Mississippi. Barges have slowed the export of grain.

“64% of all grain that goes out of the United States goes down the Mississippi River,” Steinkamp said. “So if we don’t export grain the way we normally do, that adversely affects farmer’s prices.”

For example, soybeans have drastically dropped in price. Steinkamp says they’re currently a dollar less than what they’d be worth had the river been at normal level.

“Just think if you had 1,000 acres of soybeans, and you had to take them all to town today, that would be a $60,000 hit to your pocketbook, for purely the sake of the river being low,” Steinkamp said.

Losing the Mississippi River’s consistency of transportation hurts both importing and exporting. Imports on their way up could be in fewer amounts and at a higher price.

“Low river levels are going to have an adverse effect on the 2023 planting season if we don’t get them back up, because we can’t get the fertilizer up the river at a cost-efficient method,” Steinkamp said.

Relying on the other two forms of transportation via the rail system and trucks is not an option. All three carry their own load in the grain business.

“If you stopped transporting it down the river, there’s not enough rail cars in the United States to take up the difference,” Steinkamp said.

Steinkamp says this also affects export to foreign nations. A huge factor that usually provides an advantage over South American competition, is now hurting the United States grain export.

That factor is the transportation sector. It all comes back to hurt the farmers who cultivate the crops, now that transportation costs are high, and barges have become hard to come by.

“If it costs them extra, it just decreases the price for the farmers,” Steinkamp said.

There is no word on when this burden will see its end. Future forecasts don’t predict enough rainfall to aid the Mississippi.

The biggest problem the Mississippi River is lacking is locks and dams south of St. Louis. Those mechanisms usually hold water levels around nine feet high, something not possible south of the Ohio junction.

The estimated amount to make barge travel on the Mississippi safe again, and not narrowed is about nine feet.