Harvest season is underway for crops such as soybeans and corn, but farmers’ yields are piling up. Near-historic low water levels on the Mississippi River are slowing down barges and driving up shipping costs. With lower cargo capacity, shipments are getting backlogged. And until barge traffic picks up, shippers and farmers will continue to bear the brunt of high rates.

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Harvest season is underway for crops such as soybeans and corn, but farmers’ yields are piling up. 

Near-historic low water levels on the Mississippi River are slowing down barges and driving up shipping costs. With lower cargo capacity, shipments are getting backlogged. And until barge traffic picks up, shippers and farmers will continue to bear the brunt of high rates. 

During the first week of October the river approached historic lows in Memphis. The Mississippi is seven feet below the National Weather Service (NWS) gauge there — just a few feet higher than the all-time low in 1988, when a devastating drought swept much of the Midwest.

The NWS projects the river will inch closer to that record by the end of this month. 

The river is now so low that barges are running aground.

The Coast Guard has reported eight groundings in the lower Mississippi in the past week, including one near Memphis.

Mike Johnson, NWS senior forecaster in Memphis, said that low rainfall this summer coupled with record-high temperatures have created a dire situation.

Low water means high shipping rates 

Soybean and corn are some of the top agricultural exports on the Mississippi River, where ships carry them downriver to ports that export the commodities globally.

The Mississippi River accounts for more than half of these crops’ exports, and Memphis is the second-largest inland port on the river, with an annual economic impact of $9.27 billion, according to the Port of Memphis.

Crews move pipes across the Wolf River Harbor in Downtown Memphis Oct. 6, 2022. Credit: Patrick Lantrip, Daily Memphian

Barges are the most efficient shipping method. One barge has the same capacity as 35 train cars or 134 semi-trucks, but shipping capacity has fallen and rates have soared in recent weeks, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report.

A low river’s impact on barge traffic is twofold. The lower the water, the narrower the river, and the fewer barges can fit in the channels. And the lower the water, the lighter the load.

Barge capacity has been reduced by at least 20% compared to normal, according to the American Commercial Barge Line, and the industry has agreed to limit the number of barges per tow up to 38%.

In the fields 

John Dodson is a soybean and corn farmer in Dyersburg, Tennessee, and a representative of the Soy Transportation Coalition. It’s still early in the harvest, and crops are still maturing, so the shipping backup is likely to worsen until river levels rise, which will only happen if it rains. 

“We deal with challenges like this seemingly every year,” Dodson said. “Last year, it was a major hurricane in the Gulf completely ripping apart two major terminals. This year it’s slow, low rivers.” 

Dodson’s local grain elevator announced Friday that it would not accept deliveries over the weekend. Dodson has on-site storage for his crops, but many farmers do not.

“The majority of our product goes down the Mississippi River for export,” Dodson said. “And if the terminal cannot take it, if the barges cannot move the grain down to the ports in New Orleans, we’re at a standstill, so those crops just sit in the field.” 

Yet rain is a double-edged sword. The river needs rain to return to normal levels, which will increase barge traffic, reduce rates and give farmers a way to export their crops — but rain could also be harmful to the crops sitting in the fields. 

All of this culminates in lower profits for farmers. They lost about $1 per bushel, which is a 10-20% loss, Dodson said.

On the river

George Leavell has spent more than three decades in the industry. He’s president of Wepfer Marine, a harbor and fleet service that operates in seven ports on the lower Mississippi. When a barge runs aground, nearby towboats are called to pull them back into the water.

Leavell said the industry lends support to competitors in times of need, especially when river traffic is impacted, and the response is organized and collaborative.

Barges are more likely to run aground in low water, and docking is also more challenging. When a barge runs aground towboats are called in to assist. 

“There is no panic in the industry,” Leavell said. “This is not the first time we’ve seen (low water); it’s not going to be the last time we see it.” 

For now, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is dredging the river to deepen channels and get barge traffic moving, and the Coast Guard is managing the queues of vessels.  

The upper Mississippi River is managed by locks and dams, while the river below St. Louis is free flowing. In an emergency, the Corps can release water from dams upriver to increase the depth downriver, but it’s reserved for dire situations.

This story is a product of the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, an editorially independent reporting network based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in partnership with Report For America and the Society of Environmental Journalists, funded by the Walton Family Foundation.

Top image: A marooned steamboat crumbles on the banks of the Mississippi River near Martin Luther King Park in Memphis, Tennessee Oct. 7, 2022. Lower than normal river levels have made the shipwreck accessible by land. Credit: Patrick Lantrip, Daily Memphian