Backed Up on the Mississippi

Low water levels back up barge traffic on Mississippi, slowing soybean, fertilizer and crop transport.

Published on: Aug 27, 2012

Low water levels along the Mississippi are backing up shipping traffic, causing barges and towboats to run aground.

Nearly 100 tows sat idle on the Mississippi River near Greenville, strangling traffic on the country's major artery. That amounts to about $1 million per day lost to operators.

The Coast Guard reports five harbors in Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri and Mississippi are closed as water levels dip to their lowest level since the drought of 1988.

Drought has laid Old Man River low, strangling Mississippi barge traffic and raising the potential for storage problems for Arkansas grain whose harvest has begun early.

OUTSIDE: Harvested grain piled up outside an elevator dwarfs a truck in this photo taken Aug. 14, 2012, in Phillips County, Ark. Distortion is caused by heat shimmer. (U of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture photo by Robert Goodson)
OUTSIDE: Harvested grain piled up outside an elevator dwarfs a truck in this photo taken Aug. 14, 2012, in Phillips County, Ark. Distortion is caused by heat shimmer. (U of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture photo by Robert Goodson)

"The main issue over here is the low river," said Robert Goodson, an extension agent for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture for both Phillips and Lee counties. "Barges are only being loaded 70 to 75 percent.

"As long as the Mississippi River stays low, storage may be an issue," he said. In some cases where the storage bins are filled because outgoing grain is slowed, elevators are having to pile the grain on the ground.

"There's a potential that some 1 to 1.2 million bushels will be stored on the ground" if the slow outflow of grain continues, Goodson said.

Irrigated bounty

Compared to the rain-dependent grain-growing states in the Midwest, Arkansas' crops have fared well, thanks to the state's ability to irrigate from rivers and underground water sources.

With Arkansas' corn acreage having increased 18%, or 100,000 acres, between 2011-12, plus higher yields, "it's taxing the storage capacity of the elevators," said Scott Stiles, extension economist for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. He added that the National Agricultural Statistics Service was expecting corn yields this year to be up 13 percent, or 18 bushels an acre, over last year.

"Grain sorghum harvest is going strong as well and also competing for storage space," he said. More than a third of Arkansas' corn crop has been harvested, and a fifth of the sorghum, but the big surprise this week is the early start to the rice and soybean harvest, according to the Arkansas Crop Progress and Condition report from the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Bonus for August delivery

While this isn't the earliest harvest ever for Phillips County soybeans, Goodson said there is a good premium for August delivery.

"If growers can deliver soybeans this month to Helena, their basis is 40 cents over the November futures contract at some locations," Stiles said. "September delivery is 30 cents over November. In other words, the grower picks up an additional 10 cents per bushel for delivery this month."