America's largest water highway is in trouble, ominous for Midwest grain farmers

Christopher Vondracek, Star Tribune on

Published in Business News

ON THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER - Jim Kennedy watches the river like a hawk.

From his view 33 feet up in the pilot house, Kennedy stares out wide windows at blackened driftwood, eddies, even sometimes rambunctious yachters steaming up the wide, blue waters of the Mississippi River near St. Paul, Minnesota.

"They're about the worst kind," Kennedy said, on the Tuesday after Labor Day. "Drunk yachters. But they can't be helped."

Another problem that can't be helped? Mother Nature's curveballs, like this year's devastating drought in America's heartland. And another trying year for U.S. agricultural exports, due to the high cost of diesel and lower commodity prices.

In a typical year, 60% of the nation's grain flows downstream to the Gulf of Mexico, loaded onto barges parked at terminals along the Mississippi River. The barges are often tucked below interstate overpasses or along remote stretches of inland waterways, noticed only by boater or beaver.

But, lately, the working river has garnered more attention as concern grows over the aging locks-and-dams system built in the Roosevelt administration. The industry has been further strained by scarce labor and whiplashing weather that at times makes navigability uncertain.


Farmers and grain buyers, including agribusiness titans in the Twin Cities, are increasingly watchful.

"On this part of the river, we're here because of ag," said Lee Nelson, president of Upper River Services. He noted an outstate farmer — say in southern Minnesota — may not want to drive all the way to downtown St. Paul to the Mississippi terminal.

"But he can get to the water [in Savage, Minn.]," Nelson said, referring to the grain terminals in the outer Twin Cities suburb sitting on the Minnesota River.

Kevin Hall, a supply chain vice president at Inver Grove Heights-based CHS, Inc., stared last week at a bank of video screens on the wall of the trading floor of the nation's largest farmer-owned cooperative at the Inver Grove Heights headquarters.


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