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Waterways advantage U.S. farmers

ANKENY, Iowa -- The U.S. grain industry could benefit from President Donald Trump's focus on river freight infrastructure, grain industry officials say.

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Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition based in Ankeny, Iowa. Photo supplied by the Soy Transportation Coalition. (Forum News Service/Agweek/Soy Transportation Coalition)
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ANKENY, Iowa - The U.S. grain industry could benefit from President Donald Trump's focus on river freight infrastructure, grain industry officials say.

Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition based in Ankeny, Iowa, told Agweek he was pleased with what he heard from Trump on the topic of infrastructure investments, in a speech along the bank of the Ohio River on June 7.

Trump discussed the federal government plowing $200 billion into the effort and generating a whopping $800 billion in funding from "private equity" sources, to come up with $1 trillion in investments on the topic.

"It's a very ambitious number," Steenhoek acknowledgeds, comparing it to the U.S. Highway Trust Fund that generates $35 billion a year - the figure raised from the 18.4 cents per gallon for gasoline and 24 cents a gallon for diesel.

There is no timetable for the plans, but Steenhoek says it's important that it's an issue Trump "really cares about" and resonates with his own history of "building and maintaining physical, capital assets."

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Steenhoek says the industry "should be encouraged whenever a president devotes significant time and energy" to the topic. He says it could be one of the few areas where bipartisan support could create a political win in the first year of the administration, although other areas are sucking "all the air out of the room."

Priority plan

Locks and dams on the Mississippi River and other inland waterways have fallen into disrepair and provide a bigger benefit to agriculture than is sometimes acknowledged. He says there is a big difference between a president seeing an issue as "important versus it being a priority."

About 4.5 million bushels of Minnesota soybeans move by barge on the Mississippi, compared to 107 million bushels in the western part of the state that move by rail. But if the barge traffic were interrupted, it would cause adverse rate changes for bean producers in the Dakotas and elsewhere throughout the system and far away from the Minnesota barge influence.

Similarly, Montana farmers move some of their wheat west on barges on the Columbia or Snake rivers, so they would also benefit from infrastructure updates in that waterway, Steenhoek says.

Bruce Abbe, executive director of the Midwest Shippers Association, based in Bloomington, Minn., says investments are critical and long overdue. Abbe, who represents shippers who often move goods in containers, says U.S. agricultural transportation groups are aware of competition from Brazil. Even though that country has challenges in their government and their economy, they're still growing as exporters of soybeans and other crops competing with America.

"They are going to going to give it attention and they're going to make progress," he says. U.S. farmers have benefitted from inland waterways, but that's "an advantage that won't be there if we don't attend to it."

That means making sure funds intended for that purpose aren't diverted by Congress, he says. Upper Mississippi shippers would benefit from going beyond single locks, if demand is there.

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Related Topics: MISSISSIPPI RIVER
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