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Remember the river!

The Ohio River is part of life for Terry Vising. Farming near Marysville, he’s never far from the shadow of the Ohio. But recently he and a couple of hundred other farmers got an inside view few people ever see.

Standing on the deck of a touring barge, he watched as the boat entered the older of two side-by-side locks. Then he watched as the boat was lowered to the level of the water downriver. After leaving the lock on the low-water side, the barge re-entered the lock, and he soon saw how it was raised back to the level upriver.

Key Points

• Two Ohio River ports send Indiana grain toward the Gulf of Mexico.

• Grain is only one of many products that move through the Port of Indiana.

• The cheapest way to move grain to the Gulf is by barge.


“It’s really neat to see how locks and dams work,” Vising says. “Even I take them for granted sometimes. The truth is, it’s how most of our grain going for export gets to the Gulf.”

Indeed, it’s loaded onto grain barges either near Jeffersonville at the Port of Indiana or at another port near Mount Vernon. It travels down the Ohio to Cairo, Ill., where it becomes part of barge units headed for the Gulf of Mexico.

Port of Indiana

The Port of Indiana, which Vising and friends toured before embarking on their voyage through the lock and dam, was opened in 1985. The Mount Vernon port became operational in 1976. The Burns Harbor port at Portage on Lake Michigan opened in 1969. That port has been primarily converted to other uses.

The Port of Indiana consists of 1,000 acres, with 700 acres developed and 300 still farmed by tenants. Originally purchased by the state of Indiana, it’s operated by a port commission.

Currently, 27 companies, including Consolidated Grain and Barge, have facilities there. Thirteen companies deal with metal products. All combinations of leasing and ownership exist. In some cases, the state owns land and leases the buildings. In other cases, the state owns only land, not buildings. In a few instances, the company coming in insisted on buying the land, too.

Ag commerce, primarily grain, is important to the barge industry, but it’s by far not the only group of products that move on the inland river system. Experts estimate that one-third of all barge traffic on the Ohio is coal. Another 27% involves petroleum products. About 1 in 5 barges carries either road salt or fertilizer. Specialists classify 12% of the traffic as “other agricultural-related.” Chemicals and manufactured goods too big to ship any other way make up about 9% of river traffic.

Why river traffic?

Vising doesn’t take grain travel by barge down the Ohio to the Mississippi to the Gulf for granted as much as some because he lives so close. He knows that without an economical way to transport grain downriver, it would cost more to get grain to the Gulf for export. Transportation charges are generally subtracted from what an elevator pays for grain upfront.

It takes longer to move grain by barge, but it’s cheaper. Specialists estimate 1 gallon of diesel fuel will move 1 ton of grain 500 miles by barge. That same gallon can move a ton of grain 400 miles by rail, but only 155 miles by truck.

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Firsthand look: Terry Vising and other farmers made a rare trip through a lock and dam system just west of Louisville, Ky., on the Ohio River.

This article published in the October, 2010 edition of INDIANA PRAIRIE FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.