Late harvest makes for tricky river traffic

It's normal for barge traffic on the Mississippi River to stall like this during an icy winter.

What's different this year is just how long the Mississippi will remain empty.

Last year, the Corps of Engineers announced plans to rehab Lock and Dam 25 near St. Louis starting last month. That would have shut down the river to barges like this until March. But to allow grain shipping to continue through the late harvest, the Corps pushed that date back to this month...with completion sometime in April.

A delay was important for grain shippers like Ursa Farmers Cooperative. They needed more time to get harvested grain down the river to exporters. Since they were still dealing with the later-than-usual harvest, shippers like Gerald Jenkins, the General Manager here at the Co-op, couldn't ship out enough grain to make room for storage during the river closure.

Gerald Jenkins, General Manager of Ursa Farmers Co-op said, "We normally ship out one to two million bushels of grain before the river closes down just to make space so we have room to take grain from the farmers throughout the winter months. Now because of the late harvest, that didn't give us the opportunity because of the river closure to make that space. So we are operating off of a very limited amount of space which then keeps us from being able to offer a lot of flexible storage programs, which are conveniences for our farmers within the area."

Many farmers use the slower winter months to haul corn here to fill future grain contracts. But with limited space this year, the Co-op can take only so much.

What does this mean for farmers here?

Jenkins said, "We're trying to structure the market so they are rewarded by holding onto their grain until April forward when we have the river back."

But Jenkins says it can be a hardship for farmers who will be dealing with spring planting delays, too. Late harvest meant little to no field work done last fall.

Until the river re-opens, the Co-op is operating as normal as possible, selling to local processors and buying the grain it can from local farmers. Most things in agriculture are unsure, but you *can* be sure that when the river opens, it will release a flood of grain onto barges heading south.