Soybean farmers rely on aging transportation

Farmers in Illinois and all over America who have benefited from the growing global demand for U.S. soy are facing potential obstacles that could make shipping soybeans to our international customers less efficient and more costly.

As soybean farmers, we understand the export of our crop and the continued efforts to expand markets for soy around the world are vital to our livelihoods. The value of Illinois soybeans exported in 2010 was more than $2.4 billion.

So far, the process of moving soybeans from Illinois farm fields to the Gulf of Mexico for export has been somewhat simple. But everything ages and requires maintenance, and the U.S. transportation infrastructure is no different.

A study prepared for the United Soybean Board (USB) and funded by the soy checkoff uncovered evidence that our system of highways, bridges, rails, locks and dams needs major improvements. The study, “Farm to Market – A Soybean’s Journey from Field to Consumer,” warns farmers here and in other states of what would happen if the basic systems we rely on to move our soybeans were not available.

Basically, we are depending on a 50-year-old highway system, a 70-year-old inland waterway system and a railway network built in the late 1800s to get our soybeans from Point A to Point B and beyond. The study notes that soybeans grown in Illinois move primarily by barge and by rail. Illinois soybeans shipped via barge travel an average of 1,205 miles, while those moved by rail have a journey of about 1,081 miles.

That’s a lot of miles – and a lot of opportunity for our nation’s roads, rails and rivers to fall victim to their respective ages.

As the study points out, Illinois farmers shipped about 211 million bushels of soybeans via barge in 2010. Nearly all (93 percent) of those beans sailed to the Gulf of Mexico to be exported. By 2020, Illinois is expected to ship more than 227 million bushels of soybeans on barges.

A failure at any of five locks examined by the study could cost farmers millions of dollars in lost revenue. In fact, a separate study on locks and dams estimates that a failure of the LaGrange Lock and Dam on the Illinois River could cost Illinois soybean farmers up to $2.65 per bushel.

For those of us who grow soybeans in Illinois, the findings of the “Farm to Market” study should be taken seriously. USB and the U.S. Soybean Export Council will continue working to address this issue on behalf of soybean farmers in Illinois and across the country. My fellow farmer-leaders continue to share findings of the study in hopes of spurring actions that will lead to upgrades to the U.S. transportation system.

One specific challenge pointed out by the study affects all soybeans destined for export: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ inability to maintain a depth of 45 feet on the lower Mississippi River. The current channel limits ships to 42 feet of draft. This is noteworthy because when the expanded Panama Canal opens in 2014, it will accommodate vessels with a 45-foot draft, which can haul 300,000 more bushels of soybeans than ships with a 42-foot draft. Simply put, missing out on the additional carrying capacity of the larger ships could mean a loss of profits for U.S. soybean farmers.

So, as you wrap up your harvest this year and think about the prices you are getting for your soybeans, keep in mind the importance of exporting crops across our borders. And keep in mind the value of a reliable transportation system that allows us to do that.

Sharon Covert is the USB secretary and a soybean farmer from Tiskilwa.