Moving Ag Transportation Forward
When Dennis Maple delivers corn to the co-op this fall, he’ll once again make a 4-mile detour around the bridge north of his Greentown, Indiana, farm. “The bridge is the same as in 1973, but our equipment is wider and heavier,” he says.
Maple isn’t alone. A 2016 Indiana University Public Policy Institute study commissioned by the Indiana Soybean Alliance found that 21% of Indiana’s bridges are either obsolete or deficient.
Indiana is part of a nationwide narrative. Almost 54,259 of 612,677 U.S. bridges are “structurally deficient,” according to a report by The American Road & Transportation Builders Association.
Maple, a member and former president of the Indiana Corn Marketing Council, knows that the cost of an inefficient infrastructure exceeds the extra diesel, lost time during harvest, and safety risks. As farmers ride out the fifth year of a commodity price downturn, moving infrastructure projects forward is key to boosting bottom lines.
“Farmers work to find the least-cost way to do things,” Maple says. “If grain can’t be delivered in a cost-effective way, we pay the freight with a wider basis.”
Maintaining a multimodal system
Over half of U.S. ag products are sold in a global market. “Our logistical chain is as strong as its weakest link,” says Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition (STC), a 13-state alliance including the American Soybean Association and United Soybean Board based in Ankeny, Iowa.
“Infrastructure has to keep pace with the increasing productivity of U.S. farmers. Otherwise, it’s like connecting a garden hose to a fire hydrant.”
Earlier this year, a $1.5 trillion public/private infrastructure plan proposed by the president collapsed under the weight of its heavy reliance on state funding. Almost one quarter of the $200 billion in federal dollars over 10 years was earmarked for rural areas.
Only one proposed reform in this plan targeted inland waterways. Yet three fourths of U.S. exports rely on water transport for a portion of their route. The Mississippi River is a crucial conduit. “Our inland waterway system is one of our secrets to success,” Steenhoek says. “Many countries have navigable rivers, but our rivers penetrate our most productive farmland. China may be halfway around the world, but our rivers shrink the distance and connect farmers to international customers.”
The U.S. system of locks and dams relies on 237 lock chambers. The majority have exceeded their 50-year lifespan. “The biggest concern is a major lock and dam failure in the Upper Mississippi north of St. Louis,” Steenhoek says. “Last year’s shutdown of Lock 52 on the Ohio River created a bottleneck for weeks. One Indiana farmer said his basis dropped from a positive 5¢ to a negative 20¢. That’s real money.”
The good news is that legislation passed during the Obama administration finally assured a source of consistent funding, and the new Olmsted Locks and Dam (Lock 52) is scheduled to open this fall. Locking time will be cut from five hours to one hour.
The bad news? This Army Corps of Engineers project was completed over 30 years, at a cost of $3 billion.
A new Informa Economics report commissioned by STC underscores the need to deepen the Mississippi’s 256-mile shipping channel from Baton Rouge to the Gulf of Mexico to accommodate larger cargo ships. “It would add $461 million in revenue to soybean producers across 31 states,” Steenhoek says. “They also would benefit from lower rates with greater competition between barges and rail.” (Learn more at soytransportation.org.)
House passage of a $3 billion Water Resources Development Act is one positive step forward. However, lack of funding has stalled a lengthy list of approved projects. “It’s just the first step,” Steenhoek says.
Critical grassroots leadership
The U.S. invests less than 2% of GDP in infrastructure. (This compares with Canada at 4%, Mexico at 4.5%, Europe at 5%, India at 8% and China at 9%.) The federal fuel tax hasn’t increased since 1993. This federal inertia has led 26 states to increase fuel taxes over the past five years. “No one wants to pay more, but people are recognizing the predictable consequences of this funding gap,” Steenhoek says.
“Roads and bridges are the most underappreciated mode of transportation, but the most consequential to farmer profits,” he says. “We’re exploring ways to conserve scarce taxpayer resources.”
In 2017, STC teamed up with the Midland County Road Commission and the Michigan Soybean Promotion Committee to apply new load-testing technology to three bridges. As a result, all three were removed from weight listing.
Maple was on hand in Boone County, Indiana, when STC and Purdue University partnered with county engineers and state DOT. “Visual inspection leads to some unnecessary load-posting,” Maple says. “Using sensors helps direct funds to bridges in the worst condition.” STC has projects underway in Kentucky and Kansas.
In western Wisconsin, new weight restrictions were imposed on 200 bridges, based on concerns about greater use of semitrucks with tightly spaced axles that carry more weight in a smaller frame.
One of these bridges turned Trempealeau County grain farmer Shane Goplin’s 4-mile trip between his barn and fields into a 17-mile detour. “They put a Band-Aid on it this summer,” he says. “But this county alone has 48 D-rated bridges.”
Wisconsin has a backlog of 100 bridges slated for replacement. Rob Richard, senior director of governmental relations at Wisconsin Farm Bureau, says infrastructure has been a critical issue the past two legislative sessions. “We’re getting an additional $38.6 million in this grant cycle for the local bridge program,” he says.
That seems a bridge too far for Goplin. “With Mother Nature, low prices, and infrastructure issues, I’m concerned for the future,” he says. “Farmers end up paying the costs, and there’s no cushion or margin in farming now.”
The Need for Speed
The rural infrastructure road map is incomplete without one other high-traffic issue demanding greater speed.
“The internet is infrastructure, and it’s as vital to rural areas as roads and bridges,” says Zach Hunnicutt, a Giltner, Nebraska, farmer.
Last year’s budget deal provided $10 billion for broadband development. During a White House meeting on business technology, Hunnicutt focused on the need for connectivity. “I told them high-speed internet isn’t a reality in rural America,” he says. “My brother tried sending a large file of aerial images to a San Francisco company. It required 24 hours to upload.”
Hunnicutt, who farms with his wife, brother, and parents, has fiber optic cable. “One issue is FCC’s definition of broadband speeds: 25-megabits-per-second download, and 3-megabits-per-second upload. You can watch Netflix, but you can’t transmit many photos, videos, or much data at those speeds.”
He adds, “In places where there’s no real competition among internet providers, the minimum speed becomes the maximum. It’s hard to promote rural development and address rural population decline. Broadband’s not a luxury – it’s a utility. You can’t expect to attract people or businesses with substandard internet.”