Soy Growers Discuss Unique Transportation Challenges in Their Regions

Feb 23, 2022

Whether traveling by truck, train, barge or vessel, U.S. soy is bound to hit some roadblocks along the journey to market. These snags end up costing farmers and the consumers, which is why ASA has long advocated for policy that funds maintaining and updating the country’s aging infrastructure. ASA is encouraged by the passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, signed into law by President Biden this fall—but there’s still much work to do to keep #SoyOnTheGo reliably and economically to both domestic and international customers. As part of ASA’s #SoyOnTheGo campaign this fall, four ASA directors shared the transportation problems they experience in their areas and why updating U.S. infrastructure is a top priority. Read their columns below:

Reliable surface transportation is key to keeping soy & supply chain moving

By Caleb Ragland (KY), ASA Director

As harvest begins to wrap up in Kentucky, the focus has shifted to getting my soybeans from field to market. Now is where the importance of a reliable infrastructure system comes into play. We're very dependent on infrastructure, especially surface transportation, for all the commodities my family and I grow. Our farm in Kentucky is approximately 100 miles from river terminals that take our grains on to the end users. Without functioning roads, it's difficult for us to get our commodities there and shipped cost-effectively.

Dependable surface transportation is also responsible for bringing all the inputs we need to put our crop in the ground, such as fertilizers, seeds, chemicals and parts—all the things we take for granted and as farmers use in our daily lives. This is especially important right now, as rising transportation costs—partly due to the recent supply chain disruptions—are affecting our ability to get these key items such as machinery parts and fertilizer. The issues arising from port backlogs and shipping container shortages are raising the costs of these inputs and potentially hurting the farm economy for the 2022 growing season and beyond.

At ASA, we have spent a lot of time bringing to light many of the aging infrastructure issues that have taken place the last 20 years and highlighting the need for updates, repairs and maintenance. We want to continue having an excellent transportation system for our soybeans and other commodities. In my opinion, the infrastructure in this country separates us from any other country in the world in our ability to deliver goods quickly, efficiently and cost-effectively to both domestic and international markets.

 The slow-down: bridges, locks & dams

By Dave Walton (IA), ASA Director

Infrastructure isn’t something we think about until it impacts us either positively or negatively. Harvest has wrapped up, and each year we spend a little time in the office picking over what went well and what we could do better. The discussion usually centers around how we moved grain out of fields, in what order, or loading and unloading bins. Normally we discuss things like, “Well, if we filled the east bin first, we could have finished the Arp farm, but we didn’t, and it cost us a half day.”

This year we spent more time talking about bridge limits than anything else. You see, we have a number of bridges around us that have had weight limits lowered over the past few years. Those bridges impact the routes we can take to and from certain farms with loaded semis. In one case, it forces us to take a dirt road to avoid a bridge on a gravel road that is the only route to and from the farm. The bridge has a 20-ton limit. We cannot go over it with more than a few hundred bushels on the truck—an impractical option.

The fact that we even have to talk about it and the logistics of getting a crop out of the field points to the deficiencies that have been allowed by the governmental agencies in charge of the infrastructure in the area. The recently passed infrastructure bill has provisions in it to correct these deficiencies, but why did it have to get to this point? Let’s hope that, in the future, the funding is more consistently available and the technology of bridge construction will improve so we don’t allow our roads and bridges to get to this point again.

Another issue we talked about is the addition of storage on-farm to limit the number of soybeans we deliver to a river terminal. This year, the terminal struggled to get enough barges to keep the harvest flow going. Could it be COVID 19—or some other reason? Maybe. Something that would help this issue is the lengthening of locks on the upper Mississippi so barges wouldn’t have to break down the tow, lock through and re-assemble.

By conservative estimates, this process adds 90 minutes for each tow at each lock. It’s not difficult to see that, over the course of navigating even half the locks on the upper Mississippi, it takes days longer to travel this section of river, slowing down the cycle time for barges to get up and down the waterway. Did this issue slow the barges and our delivery of soybeans? I can’t say for sure, but I can say with certainty that speeding up the barge cycle time will reduce freight costs and therefore impact basis levels for soybeans grown by all farmers in the Mississippi River valley.

Let’s hope that the funding in this infrastructure legislation is just the start of the funding it takes to support the roads and bridges, locks and dams that are so vitally important to soybean farmers. It’s our competitive advantage over our overseas competitors.

Off the beaten path: detours due to aging infrastructure comes at a cost

By Willard Jack (MS), ASA Director

Transportation infrastructure in Mississippi has been an issue for farmers and truckers like me for the last several years. There are 10,757 bridges on local roads and 426 are marked closed. Throughout the state, of the total 17,022 bridges, 2,153 are deemed structurally deficient and marked low weight. Some of these bridges are made of wood and well past their useful life span. Some have been damaged by floods and others by accident.

It is not unusual to travel 5 to 10 miles off route to avoid a low-weight bridge. What is even more concerning is the damage our trucks and equipment sustain by taking these detours on deteriorated county roads.

The American Soybean Association has advocated for more federal resources to help states like Mississippi improve rural roads and bridges. Aging infrastructure is not only a safety hazard but also an economic issue. A rough road that slows trucks or causes damage to their tires and suspension increases the cost of transporting the goods to market, which ultimately increases the costs for end-users and consumers.

ASA has also advocated for increased truck weights in the state of Mississippi, where we have 80,000-pound and 56,000-pound load limit highways. Obviously, our heavy trucks of soybeans heading to market can only travel the 80,000-pound roads, which means yet another detour. In Mississippi, you can buy a $50 yearly harvest permit that allows you to load to 84,000 pounds when leaving the field or a place without a scale. Starting in 2023, with a permit we will be able to load up to 88,000 pounds. Just going from 84,000 pounds to an 88,000-pound load limit will allow us to haul fewer loads of soybeans to market, meaning the truck will be on the road less. This in turn means less fuel, fewer man hours and fewer detours.

Deepening the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge south is another policy priority of ASA’s and we’ve already seen progress on this front. All of the beans from my farm go to the Mississippi and are loaded on a barge heading to Baton Rouge to be loaded on a boat. It will save us $0.10 a bushel if we can load the boat to the same depth as the Panama Canal.

These issues in our region may be similar to issues in your region—or you may have other examples. Regardless, we are pleased to see infrastructure and transportation have their day in the sun and look forward to improved systems in Mississippi and elsewhere in our country to keep soy “on the go.”

U.S. soy’s competitive advantage hinges on reliable infrastructure

By Monte Peterson (ND), ASA Director & USSEC Chairman

It’s no secret the world is increasingly global, and we as U.S. citizens benefit from having access to a broader array of goods, products and technologies delivered right to our doorstep. U.S. soybean farmers also benefit from access to global markets, as approximately 60% of the soy grown each year is exported for use by food, feed and consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies. Soy is the U.S.’s No. 1 food and agriculture export.

The past 18 months—under the grip of COVID-19 and overstretched global supply chains—have shown both the resiliency and fragility of our systems. Despite a local drought and increasing insect and weed pressures, U.S. farmers and the supply chain are resilient, growing a record crop this year and hitting a new record for soy exports. While this is reason for applause, it didn’t happen without issue. We saw examples of infrastructure fragility, weak links and various challenges, in particular container shipments that have caused shortages for many buyers around the world.

Among our international customers, U.S. soy has earned its reputation and market share on quality and reliability. Because of the climate and internal infrastructure in many other parts of the world, our customers rely on just-in-time-delivery of U.S. soy. It’s the efficiency of our infrastructure that helps preserve the quality of U.S. soy and makes for the best end-user experience for customers, and we want to keep this reputation intact.

Without the ability to reliably supply just-in-time orders, customers may experience increased spoilage, product degradation, a lower nutritional profile and a loss to their bottom line. U.S. soy stands out from soy of other origins because of this very service—and it hinges on our infrastructure and ability to move soy efficiently and effectively off farms and to customers around the world.

This year alone, soy exports will add $34 billion to the rural and farm economy. Let’s protect the future of our farm economy and use wisely our country’s recent investments in infrastructure, which will  benefit not only U.S. farmers but also enable nutrition and food security and improve livelihoods worldwide.