WASHINGTON, Jan. 20, 2016 - It’s been said that a rising tide lifts all boats, but a rising river appears to be doing the same thing as grain shippers deal with the effects of Midwest flooding as they try to move the 2015 grain harvest to export terminals near New Orleans.
Experts say the recent downpours will have a slowing – not stopping – effect on barges headed down the rising Mississippi River for a little more than a month. Unusually heavy rains hit Missouri and Illinois, which in turn led to high water levels in the Illinois, Mississippi, and Missouri rivers, among others. Rick Calhoun, a 40-year veteran of the barge business who now works for Cargill and chairs the National Grain and Feed Association’s Waterborne Commerce Committee, said for the most part, companies are dealing with the challenges brought about by the high water.
“It’s not the first flood we’ve ever had on the river nor will it be the last,” he told Agri-Pulse. “We’re getting through it.”
Calhoun said the river is as much as 17 feet higher than normal in some places, which makes it impossible for shippers to navigate as usual, but isn’t preventing them from operating. He said the river is running faster, which has led to some safety concerns. For example, towboats hit the Vicksburg Bridge at the Mississippi-Louisiana several times last week, underscoring the difficulties of shipping on a faster river.
For safety reasons, towboats are moving fewer barges than normal, he said, which means more trips for towboats and more expenses for a sector that is already pinching pennies.
“Margins are exceedingly tight right now . . . so these little dings that we’re getting, these additional costs that are just being inserted into the system continue to add up,” Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, told Agri-Pulse.
Steenhoek added that exporters get “very sensitive” about disruptions in service around this time of year because of the effect that might have on exports before the South American harvest comes to the market.
Calhoun agreed that the flooding would be harmful to his business, joking that “Mother Nature doesn’t really care about contracts.” Perhaps a small saving grace is that with low commodity prices, many producers are still storing their own grain, meaning there isn’t as much of it to move on the river.
As disruptive as the high water will be, both men agreed that this situation is not as bad as the shutdown of the Port of New Orleans triggered by Hurricane Katrina a little more than a decade ago. There will be restrictions, there will be reductions, and in the coming months, there will likely be the need for dredging recently-added sediment from the river, but Calhoun said this will be a slowdown, not a shutdown.
“We still need to load ships, we still need to get grain down the river,” he said. “There’s just kind of a delay until we can safely operate the facilities at both ends of the river.”
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