Growing rail service for agriculture

In the past several months, I've seen firsthand the leadership and team effort between our congressional and state delegations. Since the rail service issues became apparent earlier this year, South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard and the departments...

In the past several months, I've seen firsthand the leadership and team effort between our congressional and state delegations.

Since the rail service issues became apparent earlier this year, South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard and the departments of agriculture and transportation have been working with railroad executives, congressional members and the three-member U.S. Department of Transportation Surface Transportation Board to address the issues our South Dakota industries continue to face. With rail service under federal jurisdiction, a coordinated effort with the STB and our congressional delegation has been vital in making progress on the issues caused by railcar shortages, shipping delays and rail yard congestion. The summary below reflects the public efforts South Dakota has undertaken to communicate ongoing concerns with leading officials:

The STB held a public hearing in Washington, D.C., on April 15 to assess the status of rail shipping in the northern plains. I attended this hearing and provided testimony regarding the problems we were seeing in South Dakota and the urgent need to address these issues before the 2014 planting season. After this hearing, the STB ordered rail companies to track and ensure timely delivery of fertilizer.

On July 18, South Dakota officials met with each of the STB board members to assess progress and discuss ways to enhance communication between our state and the railroad companies.

After this discussion, the STB provided an opportunity for South Dakota officials and rail service providers to meet face-to-face in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 8 where we discussed our respective challenges. After this meeting, both the Rapid City, Pierre & Eastern Railroad, and the Canadian Pacific Railway committed to providing three additional grain trains per week, which will provide some relief for our fall harvest. In addition, STB officials made clear they were taking their oversight role very seriously.


On Sept. 4, the STB held a public hearing in Fargo, N.D., to discuss rail issues with regional stakeholders. On behalf of Daugaard, I again stressed the need for South Dakota farmers and businesses to have reliable rail service and underscored adverse economic effects disrupted rail shipping will cause for our rural communities and the entire statewide economy.

Most recently, I elevated South Dakota's rail service issues for discussion with all of the secretaries, commissioners and directors of state departments of agriculture at the annual meeting of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA). As the vice-chair of NASDA's Rural Development and Financial Security Committee, I invited Randy Gordon, CEO of the National Grain and Feed Association, to discuss the complexity and impact of inadequate rail service. Gordon praised the leadership of the northern great plains states for our continued effort on this front.

I commend Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., for his leadership on this issue at the federal level. As ranking member of the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Thune was responsible for a recent hearing that highlighted the rail challenges we are continuing to face. His committee also passed legislation aimed at strengthening the STB's oversight role.

While there might be opportunities to address issues through legislation, that is a long-term solution. We need to continue to address immediate needs by preparing for ongoing shipping challenges. Recognizing this will be a long-term problem, make plans now to do what you can to manage the record harvests we are seeing, and make room to effectively store your grain, if necessary.

I am proud of South Dakota's agriculture industry, and am equally proud to represent the interests of our hard-working producers. Thank you for doing your part to provide the food, feed, fuel and fiber for our growing global population.

Editor's note: Lentsch is the South Dakota Secretary of Agriculture.

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