2019 has been a tough year for the barge industry and all producers of commodities that use the Inland Mississippi Waterways System. After Lock and Dam 15 on the upper Mississippi River was closed from March 16 till June 20 due to flooding, the locks in the Starved Rock and Marseilles dams on the Illinois Waterway were closed until August 16 from 6 a.m.to 6 p.m. so existing emergency gates can be removed from the locks and bulkhead slots installed. Currently, shipping delays and tow size restrictions due to shoaling and lock maintenance are a concern. These major navigation issues along with a trade war lowered total downbound tonnage on the Mississippi, Ohio, and Arkansas Rivers by 72% versus the same week last year.
Lock and Dam 27 at Granite City, Illinois is below where the Illinois River joins the Mississippi River but above St. Louis, Missouri. Soybean barge movements during the last week of crop year 2019 finished at 489 thousand short tons (a marketing year high) and then fell 208 thousand short tons the first week of 2020 or almost half of 2019. Corn barge movements continue to be far below last year’s pace.
Farmers above Lock and Dam 27 (Granite City, Illinois) are clearing out soybean bin space before the next harvest arrives. Without record amounts of soybeans and grain flowing down the river, much of the crops currently in storage will remain into the next export season. The lack of storage should increase the harvest pressure on the barge market that usually starts about the second week of September. This year, the late planting will push the pressure back one week. The barge industry needs the volume to flow to generate revenue.
For the upper Mississippi region, the farmer has about 12 weeks to move soybeans before the river closes for the winter. Of course, having product on hand does create opportunity if a major crop failure occurs somewhere in the world and/or the trade war ends. The U.S. has available supplies to quickly fill the void.