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Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016

Farmers are uncertain about future of grain transportation

Monday, September 12, 2005

One Scott County farmer shells corn while the other drives by his side.
SIKESTON -- Despite the Mississippi River reopening for traffic last week, farmers and officials with grain elevators remain uncertain about the future of grain transportation.

"It's a mess," said Debra Seidel, director of communications for Bunge North America St. Louis corporate headquarters, which has plants in Caruthersville, Morehouse, Portageville and Poplar Bluff.

Bunge's primary export facility is located near New Orleans in Destrehan, La., and was shut down after Hurricane Katrina.

"Over the weekend (Sept. 3) we were able to resume limited operations at Destrehan," Seidel said.

A week ago the lower Mississippi River was opened to deep draft vessels with a 35-foot draft or less for one-way daylight traffic only.

Only the Port of Gulfport, Miss., remains closed to all traffic. Pascagoula, Miss., is open to vessels with 12-foot draft or less. Mobile is open to barge traffic only. Pensacola, Fla., and Destin/Panama City, Fla., are open to vessels with a 31-foot draft or less.

Riceland Foods in New Madrid is currently loading barges at the New Madrid County Port and heading down the river, said Bill Reed, vice president for public affairs at the Riceland Food Inc. headquarters in Stuttgart, Ark.

"We actually load most of our freight at Darrow, La., south of Baton Rouge, La., west of New Orleans, and it did not sustain the damage that the New Orleans area did," he said.

Riceland is loading vessels at Darrow although they're not fully functional as they were before, but are apparently moving that way rather quickly, Reed said.

"We had two barges lost for a period, but they were found. These were loaded with rice for export. They appear to be OK," Reed said.

Riceland, a farmer-owned cooperative in Missouri, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, markets rice, soybeans and wheat.

Reed has even been fielding phone calls from concerned Missouri farmers.

"The river freight situation, in general, is certainly not what it was prior to the storm, but it is moving again. And that's important since about 65-70 percent of Missouri rice is exported," Reed said.

As the corn harvest picks up and soybeans in the coming weeks farmers hope there will be enough storage at the local grain elevators since the major crops are shipped through New Orleans.

"We know we can keep hauling until next week," said farmer Marty Priggel of Oran.

And after that farmers may have to rely upon their own storage. Most grain elevator employees have been tight-lipped about what farmers can expect, Priggel added.

Officials at local grain elevators Consolidated Grain and Barge in Mississippi County and Cargill Inc. in Sikeston declined to comment on the current situation.

At least the ships are moving, and the grain is moving out, said Dan Overbey, executive director of the Southeast Missouri Regional Port Authority.

"Rivers are great because they're a good, cheap, efficient way to transport, but if we have disruptions like this and it causes problems in the system and does have an adverse effect on the farmers," Overbey said.

And that effect is higher fuel and fertilizer prices and low grain prices.

"There's no positive to this," Priggel said.

Seidel predicted it will be at least several weeks before things get back to "normal" at Bungee and other elevators and barges.

"But no one is sure what the future holds," Seidel said. "Too many things are still unknown."