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Published January 27, 2010, 12:00 AM

Soybean producers follow crops’ path down the Mighty Mississippi

SFY International witness dire need for lock and dam improvements
NEW ORLEANS, La. – Four years ago, the Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council debuted the See For Yourself (SFY) program, geared to educate the state’s soybean producers on the path their crop takes once it leaves the field.

By: Julie Buntjer, Worthington Daily Globe

NEW ORLEANS, La. – Four years ago, the Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council debuted the See For Yourself (SFY) program, geared to educate the state’s soybean producers on the path their crop takes once it leaves the field.

On Monday, the latest contingent selected for the program – 23 soybean producers, Minnesota Soybean Growers Association board members, representatives from Farm Bureau, Farmer’s Union, the Minnesota Turkey and Minnesota Broiler associations, and other ag professionals – embarked on a week-long mission to include a tour of the Port of New Orleans, La., and, later this week, a visit to the International Poultry Expo in Atlanta, Ga.

The SFY International Marketing Mission began with a visit to the CHS (Cenex-Harvest States) facility in Inver Grove Heights, where participants learned just how much of the product they produce is exported, how it gets to its destination and the dire need for improvements on the nation’s lock and dam system on the Mississippi River.

There are 25 locks and dams on the Mighty Mississippi between Minnesota and St. Louis, Mo. Built for a 50-year life expectancy, the system is now several decades beyond that and in need of replacing.

“Almost all of the infrastructure is old, decrepit and needs updating,” said Dan Larson, a representative from the Upper Mississippi Waters Association.

Up until 2000, there was a lot of opposition to replace the locks and dams on the Upper Mississippi. By 2007, The Water Resource Development Association received authorization for 14 projects on the Upper Mississippi, but without funds, the work can’t begin.

Having an operating and efficient lock and dam system is paramount to soybean growers in Minnesota because an estimated 40 percent of the state’s soybean crop is shipped out on barges to the Gulf of Mexico. Another 15 to 20 percent is shipped via rail to the Pacific Northwest.

“We are still extremely dependent on what goes down the Mississippi,” Larson said.

The existing locks and dams are 600 feet in length, while the proposed seven new locks would be 1,200 feet each – long enough to support multiple barges at one time.

Congress is likely going to consider establishing lockage fees for barges that use the system, but Nelson said his group is opposed to such a measure. The reason is that south of St. Louis, there are no locks and dams on the Mississippi. Items transported from there to the Gulf of Mexico would not be charged at all, while barges originating from Minnesota would have to pay a fee at each of the 25 locks.

“We pay a price for living in paradise,” Larson said. “We don’t want the (lockage fees), and it’s not going to pass.”

Still, they need to find a way to fund the improvements, and that begins with engaging legislators. That is where soybean producers come in. Larson encouraged SFY participants to speak with congressional representation regarding the need for replacing the existing system.

“This is an important project that needs to be funded,” he said, adding that there is a high concern for lock failures on the existing system.

“We’re spending more money on maintenance when we need to build new,” said Larson.

Just one lock shut down during peak shipping season for soybean producers could mean an 18- to 22-cent-per-bushel price drop at their local terminal.

On Tuesday morning, the SFY group toured the Port of New Orleans by both land and water to get an up-close look at the route their soybeans take as they head farther down the Mississippi to grain handling facilities like CHS in Belle Chasse, La.

An afternoon tour of the CHS operation gave soybean farmers an opportunity to view a barge filled with wheat unloaded into the facility.

Steven Talbot, general manager, said plant can unload 18 barges of grain per day, and operates 24 hours per day, seven days a week. The Belle Chasse facility has a storage capacity on land of 3 million bushels, in addition to another 5.5 million in floating storage on the river.

“It’s a country elevator on steroids,” said Talbot of the size and scope of their southern Louisiana operation.

Eighteen different commodities come through the plant, including genetically modified and identity preserved varieties of soybeans, corn and wheat.

Of concern to soybean producers in the group was the quality of Minnesota-grown grain by the time in reaches the CHS facility, some 30 days after it left terminals in their home state.

“The northern beans (considered from St. Louis northward) are much better quality,” said Talbot. “The southern bean quality just doesn’t hold up.”

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