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Aging U.S. ag transportation system needs repair - USB

08/21/2012 @ 10:39am

The aging transportation system that has given U.S.farmers a competitive advantage in the global market is now threatened by the deterioration of U.S. highways, bridges, rails, locks and dams, says a new report funded by the United Soybean Board (USB).

"U.S. farmers depend on a 50-year-old highway system, a 70-year-old inland waterway system and a railway network build in the late 1800s to move their products from the fields to end users," the USB report said.

The study, "Farm to Market - A Soybean's Journey," analyzed how soybeans and other agricultural products move from the farm gate to customers, highlighting weaknesses found in the system along the way.

The study was recommended by the checkoff-funded Soy Transportation Coalition.

"The entire transportation network has been vital to the U.S. soy industry, not only in moving our product to domestic processors but also in delivering U.S. soy to our international customers as well," says Dale Profit, soybean farmer from Van Wert, Ohio, and USB director. "We need to protect this advantage if the United States is going to remain the preferred source for soy throughout the world."

Profit called the TU.S. inland waterway system "a precarious leg of a soybean's journey."

The deteriorating lock system remains at risk of failure, he said.

"Dredging needs to be done to encompass new larger ships that will be possible with the expansion of the Panama Canal, due to open in late 2014," according to USB.

"The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has the responsibility to maintain a depth of 45 feet on the lower Mississippi River, but, due to funding issues, has not been able to dredge to maintain an adequate navigable channel, limiting ships to 42-foot draft, meaning the vessel holds fewer soybeans.

"If U.S. waterways cannot accommodate these larger ships, the U.S. soy industry may not be able to capitalize on the potential advantages that the expanded Panama Canal will offer. The checkoff-funded study also shows that limiting the volume of soy that can be in one shipment could lead to higher freight costs."

According to the report, the U.S. railway network is also under pressure, given increased exports to China.

"The industry has seen an increase in rail movement from the western Soybean Belt to the Pacific Northwest. In 2009-2010, 68 percent of U.S. soybeans traveling by rail ended their U.S. journey in the Pacific Northwest," the report said

The study predicts that China's import of U.S. soy will continue to grow, doubling by 2020-2021.

"Brazil has several proposed infrastructure projects that haven't been completed yet," Profit said. "But if those improvements are made in Brazil, it would put them on par with U.S. soybean farmers as far as transportation costs, and we would lose that advantage."

Improvements to the transportation infrastructure would make the movement of U.S. soy and other agricultural products more efficient, totaling expected cost savings to U.S. soybean and grain industries of $145.9 million annually, according to the study. 

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