Delayed barge season because of flooding has farmers, distributors watching and waiting

La Crosse Tribune

May 07– May 7–Barge traffic through La Crosse usually starts around mid-March, but there’s been only one boat and tow through these parts.

Not long after the Aaron F. Barrett pushed 12 barges through Lock and Dam 2 near Hastings, Minn., on April 24, marking this year’s official start to commercial navigation, river traffic ground to a halt.

Heavy snows followed by rapid snowmelt, saturated soil and additional rainfall has left parts of the Mississippi River in perpetual flood stage for more than a month.

Most recently, record-breaking floods in Iowa, Illinois and Missouri has kept the lock and dam navigation system closed to barges waiting to move upstream.

Inland shipping along the Mississippi River relies on 29 locks and dams that move vessels through stepwise pools of water 9 feet deep — a 420-foot difference in elevation over about 860 river miles. There are no boats locking up or down the river from St. Louis to Lock and Dam 8 near Genoa, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ lock status report.

In fact, 2019 is the second latest start to the commercial navigation season, said Patrick Loch, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesperson for the St. Paul District.

The latest start was in 2001, when the first barge didn’t make it through Lock and Dam 2 until May 11, also because of major flooding.

The late start is “going to have quite an impact,” said John Noyes, president of F.J. Robers Co., a loading facility for barges, rail, and trucks. F.J. Robers contracts with Cargill, a global business to business food supply chain, to load grain in La Crosse.

Last year, his company loaded 2.5 million bushels of grain onto barges in April, Noyes said. “This year, it’s been zero.”

Noyes said his grain bins are full, but he’s out of fertilizer, salt and other winter supplies. “It’s not just here. It’s all the way from Minneapolis down to St. Louis.”

This puts farmers that haven’t already delivered their corn and soybeans in a bind, said Todd Servais, board president of the La Crosse County Farm Bureau.

“A contract has to be filled. Until you fill it, you don’t get paid,” Servais said. Without the money from these sales, farmers might have to take out loans to buy seeds for this year.

The lack of barge traffic also could make it harder for farmers to get fertilizer, which is usually pre-ordered, Servais said. This comes at a time when farmers are getting ready to plant, though excess rain has pushed the start of planting season back by five to seven days, Servais said.

“Everybody’s sitting on the edge of their seats,” said Tim Clemens, CEO of Allied Cooperative, a farming cooperative that supplies seeds, fertilizers and other services, and has a branch in West Salem. “It hasn’t affected us yet, but the threat is there.”

Despite lock and dam outages on the Mississippi River, Clemens said they have enough fertilizer, delivered by cargo ships through the Gulf of Mexico, for now.

“We’re pulling off the Illinois River to get it delivered,” Clemens said.

When or whether they run out depends on how quickly farmers go through their fertilizer this planting season and how soon the river comes down, Clemens said. “If it’s kind of dry (outside), we could be out (of some fertilizers) in seven to 10 days.”

Without barges on the river road, commodities and goods could be shipped by rail or truck at greater cost.

“We really depend on the river a lot, probably too much, but barge is the most economical way to move things,” Clemens said. “I’ve never seen the logistics backed up this bad due to weather in my career. What can you do? It’s Mother Nature throwing us a curveball.”

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Jennifer Lu is the La Crosse Tribune environmental reporter. You can reach her by phone at 608-791-8217 and by email jennifer.lu@lee.net.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Waterways Council, Inc.