Supply

Improvements to Mississippi River Help U.S. Soy to Maintain Reliable Supply

The harvest moon rises over Robb Ewoldt’s farm as family members harvest soybeans near Davenport, Iowa. In 2021, Ewoldt was happy with his yields despite dry conditions for most of the growing season.

Last fall, when the bin was empty and the grain was gone, Robb Ewoldt, a farmer from Davenport, Iowa, was relieved, knowing that his soybean contracts were fulfilled.

He considers himself lucky. His farm sits about four miles away from the Mississippi River – a connection for the soybeans grown on his farm to markets worldwide.

For several years, Ewoldt has worked to diversify his operation through value enhancing opportunities that extend his portfolio of crops to specialty non genetically modified soybeans (non-GMO). His approach takes more planning, more work and more management than growing conventional crops alone but he sees benefits to justify the extra work. The non-GMO soybeans Ewoldt grows will primarily be used for food-grade uses like tofu soy sauce and candy in Asian markets like Japan when they reach their destination.

It takes a well-oiled machine for the beans to go from his bins to destinations like Japan. Each step, the grain is carefully transported by trucks, barge, rail, and ships until it reaches its destination halfway around the world. In recent years, the most crucial step has been dredging the lower Mississippi River to match shipping capacities transported through the Panama Canal. Even with current supply chain disruptions, the U.S. remains the most reliable supply chain for soybean exports.

International Marketing Team

Tireless work by the United Soybean Board (USB), also called the soy checkoff, in partnership with the U.S. Soybean Export Council, American Soybean Association, and other organizations like USDA Foreign Agriculture Service open the doors for exports and provide a substantial market for Ewoldt’s premium beans.

Robb Ewoldt examines the quality of soybean plants while a combine harvests the soybeans near Davenport, Iowa. Harvest season is Ewoldt’s favorite time of year because he can see the results of all of his hard work and decision-making during the growing season.

Today’s agricultural infrastructure and commodity groups offer a vital support system for farmers. From seed dealers to co-ops to trade associations, all play a role in a farmer’s success, and Ewoldt’s beans are a great example.

“A lot of these farmers out here don’t realize what those entities are doing for us and it’s huge,” says Ewoldt. “It’s huge to know that you have a team like that talking about the Iowa farmer or the American farmer, highlighting our practices and how safe of a product we raise. It means a lot.”

Ewoldt believes that the soybean checkoff has been a game-changer in helping his farm and other farmers across the country.

“If you look at how far things have come since the checkoff started and what margins have been opened since then, it’s amazing,” he says. “The total amount on the research side that USB and the Iowa Soybean Association has invested into yield potential alone is amazing,” he says.

Soybeans harvested from fields are stored in grain bins and then loaded into tractor-trailers to be transported to the Mississippi river terminal. The soybeans are then loaded on barges and transported to New Orleans. A barge can hold about 53,000 bushels of grain.

He says that it wasn’t long ago that he grew his first 60 bushels an acre soybean crop and now he is disappointed if he doesn’t get 70.

“You can also look at the prices and demand and how we have worked through these big crops and know that the checkoff is behind it,” Ewoldt says. “It’s all because of that network that is out there pushing our product. I can’t put a value on it, but I know it’s a whole lot.”

The Power of the River

The Mississippi River has provided a competitive advantage for transporting soybeans and other commodities to world markets, including Ewoldt’s beans.

During the last marketing year, 61.65 million metric tons of U.S. soybeans left the farm to travel around the world. The soy checkoff, the Soy Transportation Coalition (STC) and state commodity organizations have worked with policymakers and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to increase the economic advantage the U.S. transportation system provides.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is dredging the lower Mississippi River from Baton Rouge, Louisiana to the Gulf of Mexico, five feet, from 45 feet to 50 feet. According to a study funded by the STC, dredging the lower Mississippi River to 50 feet will save $5 per metric ton in ocean freight.

Soybeans are loaded onto a barge in Bettendorf, Iowa. The grain will be transported down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, where it will be shipped to destinations around the globe. A Capesize ship can hold 120,000 metric tons of grain.

At 50 feet, a small Capesize vessel can be loaded to 99,000 metric tons and a large Capesize ship can be loaded to 120,000 metric tons, matching the capacity of the recently expanded Panama Canal. Deepening the lower Mississippi River draft from 45 to 50 feet will provide over $461 million in increased revenue to soybean farmers, while getting their product to their global customers with increased efficiency.

“Living on the river, it’s obvious that the inland waterways and locks and dams are critical,” Ewoldt says. “Without STC and the checkoff, I don’t think we are dredging the river in New Orleans, and I don’t think we are doing these major projects without these organizations.”

Before Ewoldt was elected to the Iowa Soybean Association board of directors and became president, he didn’t realize how important organizations like the STC were to his farm.

“It bugs the heck out of me that a lot of people don’t even realize what these organizations do,” he says. “What’s even worse is that I was one of those people.”

Meet the Soy Transportation Coalition

Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the STC, says the checkoff has been an essential tool for farmers when transporting their soybeans to market.

“[The soy checkoff] helps do a number of things,” he says. “First of all, it can be very helpful in defining the problem and defining the challenges. Number two is conveying how that challenge is germane or relevant to farmers – how farmers are actually impacted. And then number three is exploring solutions to these problems. The checkoff has been very instrumental in all three of those.”

Recently the soy checkoff, the STC and state commodity organizations in Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri and Iowa collectively committed $1 million to offset pre-engineering and design work expenses required to update Dam #25 on the Mississippi River.

The Lock and Dam, located near Winfield, Missouri, is a vital link in maritime traffic from Minnesota to Louisiana.

“It’s important for groups, like all of these soybean farmer organizations and others, to make sure that we’re identifying what these challenges are and making sure that we’re promoting solutions to those challenges,” Steenhoek says.

Ewoldt is in the process of planning his crop for the 2022 growing season. He is thankful that he has the Mississippi River, a maritime superhighway that connects his farm to international ports.

“You think of all the things you go through to grow that crop,” Ewoldt says. “Weed pressure, drought – there’s a lot of things that you can’t control. It takes a heck of a team, and I’m thankful I have agronomists, farm help and organizations that have my back.”

Learn more about the soy checkoff’s investments in infrastructure, and check out The Soy Hopper for more supply chain content.

Joseph L. Murphy

Photographer, Communicator and Content Creator

Light Shaping Photography & Communications

Joe Murphy is a photographer and writer focused on providing creative work.