Dredging the lower Mississippi River could boost U.S. competitiveness and soybean profits

by Brynna Sentel
3 minute read
The Mississippi River

Illinois is in one of the best locations in the United States for growing crops. We have rich, dark soil that is nutrient dense, we produce a high quality and volume of soybeans, and there are a multitude of modes of transportation we utilize to take our soybeans to market. From river to rail to roads, the methods to take our commodity to market are endless.

Illinois’ access to the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers to take commodities to the Gulf of Mexico and beyond is ideal for commodity crops. After farmers take their crop to the grain elevator, the major journey is just beginning.

The soybean is then placed on another mode of transportation to go to its end destination which could be thousands of miles away. Barges on the Mississippi River are able to carry much more than a semi-trailer on the highway which can carry roughly 27 metric tons (MT). On average, a barge can currently carry 66,000 deadweight MT on the Mississippi River. Deadweight includes only the load being carried, not the entire barge itself. This number is significant as sixty percent of U.S. soybean exports depart from Mississippi Gulf export terminals. The Soy Transportation Coalition (STC) is continually looking for ways to increase financial gain for our farmers.

The Mississippi River is 2,320 miles long, running from Northern Minnesota to Louisiana. The 256-mile stretch of the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to the Gulf of Mexico accounts for 60 percent of U.S. soybean exports and 59 percent of corn exports – by far the leading export region for both commodities STC found in their report. This is because those within the 256-miles stretch find it far closer to take their crop to the river versus another transportation method.

Diversifying the reliability of transportation options will continue to increase profitability options for U.S. soybean farmers and will ensure a consistent, reliable supply of U.S. soybeans around the world as well as keeping prices affordable for buyers. Keeping transportation avenues up and running is critically important for U.S. soybean exports and thus, soybean farmers.

Farmers must always look to increase their market value, especially with today’s rising input costs. How does that correlate to rivers, barges, and the loads they can carry? Five feet. That’s the answer plain and simple.

Five feet of dredging. Five feet deeper for the vessels. Five feet to increase from 66,000 MT to 78,000 deadweight MT that can be carried on a barge. Five feet increases the Mississippi River depth from 45 feet to 50 feet deep. Fifty feet is a magic number, allowing larger barges to tow more without the fear of dragging on the waterway bottom. This increase to the depth of the river boosts the reliability of the channel during low-water events and allows larger vessels with more cargo to navigate the river.

Vessels are not currently filled to the brim with product as they can only hold so much weight without sinking lower into the river, thus dragging on the bottom. With the five feet of dredging and therefore five extra feet of water depth, the weight of product a barge can hold increases significantly.

There are many reasons that a barge may not be loaded to its full capacity including the depth of the berth at the export terminal or the water depth at the destination port. Increasing the depth of the Mississippi River would reduce the costly practice of loading barges with less weight than their size allows, U.S. Soy reports.

International competition continues to grow and improving the waterways increases our ability to compete with South America, according to STC research. With the increase in demand for meal and oil worldwide, dredging is a solution to getting more of our product to market anywhere in the world. This results in downward pressure on shipping rates and making barge shipping more viable for a larger soybean producing area. It could also help open new markets for U.S. soybeans.

The demand is present. The product is grown and harvested. We simply must be able to take the product to the end destination. Five feet helps with that. The STC found adding five feet of depth to lower the Mississippi River would deliver $461 million annually for soybean producers in the 31 calculated states. This is an astronomical number for simply five feet. The investment? $270 million. The return on investment? The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) predicts roughly $7.20 for each $1 spent. These are dollars well spent for farmers.

One of the most exciting aspects of the plan? Dredging has started. Dredging operations were launched by the USACE in 2020 and have already lowered the first 172 miles of the Mississippi River Ship Channel as of February 2022. Started in 2020, and scheduled for completion by 2022, the Mississippi River Ship Channel Dredging Project ensures the return on investment (ROI) is worth every cent spent. The material that is dredged from the bottom is being used to help restore marsh habitat.

Soybeans rank as the number one agriculture commodity export departing from the mouth of the Mississippi, with corn as a close number two. Any change in export logistics on the lower Mississippi — for the good or the bad — has a major impact on U.S. grain farmers, Farm Journal states.

Rivers need maintenance just as highways and railroads. With continuous monitoring and focused work, the future is excellent for Illinois and U.S. farmers as their crop flows down river and is delivered to all parts of the world.

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