Pushing $5.4 Million Of Grain Down The Mighty Mississippi

Farmers effectively grow and market their crops, but the grain still has to be transported to its final destination. Sometimes this is to a food processing plant 89 miles away, a local ethanol plant or an export market that requires barging grain down the Mississippi River. From New Orleans, this grain is then sent across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe or through the Panama Canal to Japan or China.

A recent trip on an Upper Mississippi River tow boat pushing 15 barges of corn, soybeans and wheat opened my eyes to what is involved with marketing and transporting U.S. produced grains around the world.

With considerable talk taking place about boosting the national per acre average yield to 300 bushels of corn and 100 bushels of soybeans just 20 years from now, this means twice as much grain from the Upper Midwest will need to be transported down the Mississippi.

This anticipated doubling of yields is a serious concern when it comes to being able to move this extra tonnage of grains to market — whether by barge, ship, train or truck. Right now, 60% of all U.S. exported grain moves down the Mississippi River to New Orleans.

Starting at St. Paul, Minn., son-in-law Mark Hansen and I spent 3 days with the nine-member crew of the Show-Me-State tow boat gathering insights into how grain is transported down the Mississippi for loading onto ocean-going ships.

Our home for the trip is the "Show-Me-State," a twin–screw tow boat built in 1979. The 42-foot wide and 140-foot long tow boat is powered with a pair of 3,100 horsepower Detroit Diesel engines. Purchased in 1984 by Cargill Marine and Terminal Co., the massive tow boat is operated by Marquette Transportation out of Paducah, Ky. It takes a nine-member crew to push our tow's $5 million of grain down river.

Pigs Eye Lake, which is located on the south side of St. Paul, is the grain barge marshalling area. Starting here with a dozen barges loaded with grain, 2 days later we picked up three more barges of corn at LaCrosse, Wis.

Each barge measures 35-feet wide and 195-feet long. Three barges chained together have a width of 105 feet for maneuvering through the 110-foot wide locks. The barges stretch out 780 feet in front of the wheelhouse on the 140-foot long towboat.

So how much grain is inside this 15-barge tow? There were eight barges of soybeans, one barge of wheat and six barges of corn. That's 771,426 bushels of grain with a $5.4 million market value!

A typical barge carries 50,000 bushels of wheat ($265,000 at $5.30 per bushel) 50,000 bushels of soybeans ($500,000 at $10 per bushel) or 53,571 bushels of corn ($192,856 at $3.60 per bushel).

Upon boarding the tow boat, we meet each of the nine-member crew that has spent a total of 88 years on the river. The crew included:

  • Captain Gene Rider with 22 years of river experience.
  • Pilot Tom Persons with 16 years experience.
  • Engineer Eddie Spears with 9 years on the river.
  • Cook Linda Winters, who has been feeding tow boat crews for 9 years. (Coming on board at the same time as the two of us was her $1,100 phoned-in grocery order, so all of us will be well fed during this trip.
  • Mate James Willhite with 3 years of river experience.
  • Leadman Joe Ricketts with 7 years experience.
  • Call watch deckhand Ivan Lanier with 2 years of experience.
  • Deckhand Jason Minor with 7 years of experience.

Also on board was Chad Fox, a pilot trainee learning to navigate the upper Mississippi after spending 13 years on the Ohio and other rivers.

Hopefully, we'll soon be underway. But we'd already been delayed 7 hours by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which regulates all movements on the river.

Just a mile south of where we're starting, the Corps of Engineers is supervising a construction crew that is pouring concrete near one of the Interstate 494 bridges that crosses the river. Since they don't want any ripples or waves from the river affecting the concrete pour, we're sitting here twiddling our thumbs. And when the concrete work is finally completed and we're underway, we'll move very slowly until we clear the bridge construction area.

Due to the river's aging lock system and other reasons, we'll quickly learn river delays such as these are a normal part of the tow boat game.

In the next segment of "Shipping Out," we'll show you how the Show-Me State moves 770,000 bushels of grain south at 3 miles per hour. Shipping Out segments will appear once every two-to-three weeks. Make sure to check back often!