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Crumbling locks and dams threaten Midwestern agriculture exports

(via Flickr/The Confluence)

"When they aren't moving, they aren't creating any revenue."

It’s around 8:30 on a chilly morning and workers are starting their day at America’s Central Port on the East Saint Louis side of the Mississippi River.

Under a steady drizzle they blast clean barge hulls with massive power washers.

In a suit and tie the port’s Executive Director Dennis Wilmsmeyer is a sharp contrast to bearded workers wearing Carhart overalls.

He takes a wide stance on top of barge that rocks back and forth.

"Agriculture is huge here in terms of what we do on a daily basis," Wilmsmeyer said. "Bringing that grain in here by truck, by rail and that goes directly in the barge and heads south to New Orleans for export.”

The port moves around 1.5 million tons of grain each year. And with that much product passing through any delay causes a logjam.

“We’ve got a 75-day maintenance period going on right now in the main chamber, lock 27," Wilmsmeyer said.  "Now, we’ve got barges backed up for days trying to get through that lock system.  And those are scheduled; it’s the unscheduled ones are the ones that are really a concern for us, because you have no idea when you’re going to get through or how long it’s going to take to get that repair made. And again that’s just because of the age of the infrastructure.”

That’s because half the locks and dams in America are at least 50 years old. And a third were built around the time this Farm Services Agency film was made in 1938.

“I’m 57-years-old and I’m in need of repair from time-to-time,”says Rick Calhoun, president of Cargo Carriers, a subsidiary of agri-business heavyweight Cargill.

“With transportation assets, you know, when they aren’t moving they aren’t creating any revenue,” Calhoun said.

(Billions of dollars in grain pass through locks and dams in the St. Louis area every year.  Click through the map at the bottom of this story to see the total value of grain that has passed through five major locks and dams in the area between 2000 and 2010).

Paying for upgrades while costs rise

That’s why the industry has proposed laying down more cash, in the form of an increased fuel tax, to help pay for upgrades.

But, he says, that hasn’t gone over so well in D.C.

“Right now, even if we’re willing to say we need to pay more tax ourselves, you know, there’s some in Washington, D.C. who don’t think any additional taxes at all are needed,” Calhoun said.

Even though a lot of farmers have had some good years lately, the cost of doing business continues to rise.

Fuel and fertilizer aren’t getting any cheaper and delays on the river would eat into their bottom line.

Dwain Ford farms soybeans in Kinmundy, Ill. and is director of the United Soybean Board.

“Producers from Missouri and Illinois are extremely concerned because we utilize the river system," Ford said. "Most of our grain  Even if we sell the grain at the local elevator it’s transported over here to the Mississippi River, or down the Illinois and even the Ohio River. As the locks and dams deteriorate that means we’ll get less money because transportation costs are going to be going up.”

And it’s not just what’s in their pockets come harvest time next year that causes concern.

An international reputation - and competition

Ford says American agriculture has an international reputation to uphold.

“One reason they buy is because of the quality," Ford said. "Another reason they buy is because they can depend upon us to get the product there when we say we’re going to get it there.  And if our locks and dams go down and we’re backed up and we can’t get our product out to the gulf to export it then they’re not going to rely on us anymore as a person they can buy from and get what they want when they want it.”

Big farmers like Ford are seeing global competition get tighter.

Brazil replaced the US last year as the number one exporter of soybeans to the highly coveted Chinese market. And the Chinese seem set on having an increasingly cozy relationship with the South American competition.

In one case they invested $500 million to build a processing plant in Brazil. That could be bad news for Illinois agriculture, which is the nation’s second biggest producer of soybeans.

View The total value of grain that has passed through five major locks and dams in the Saint Louis, Mo. area between 2000 and 2010. in a larger map

Tim Lloyd was a founding host of We Live Here from 2015 to 2018 and was the Senior Producer of On Demand and Content Partnerships until Spring of 2020.

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