According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, refurbishing the aging lock and dam system on the Upper Mississippi River system may cost taxpayers and barge shippers $2.3 billion over the next 50 years. City dwellers may balk at seeing tax monies paying part of this sum, but they may not realize how integral barge transportation is to the entire U.S. economy.

Barge traffic on the Mississippi River benefits society in multiple ways, including its environmental advantage, says Dick Lambert, Minnesota Department of Transportation ports and waterways specialist. Other major benefits include cheaper transportation costs and greater public safety, compared to truck or rail.

Since Minneapolis/St. Paul and the river port in Savage, MN, are “the farthest upstream navigable ports from the Gulf of Mexico, fuel efficiency is tremendously important to farmers shipping grain from this state,” says Lambert. “However, the river infrastructure also benefits society as a whole by reducing costs to consumers for building material, fuel and food.”

Almost as much freight travels northbound to the Twin Cities area each year than goes southbound, he notes.

Even farmers close to the Gulf support the improvements to the locks on the Upper Mississippi River system, says Dee Vaughan, president of the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA), who farms in Texas. “This issue affects all corn farmers, because the price of our product is largely determined by the price of corn in Illinois and Iowa, where most of the grain is produced, plus shipping costs,” he says.

Vaughan urges all corn farmers to contact their members of Congress this spring to press for a quick resolution to fund improvements and extensions to the locks on the Upper Mississippi River system.

Joyce Vannice, who farms with her husband Alton near Hannibal, MO, says: “If we don't speak up nothing will get done. Alton and I have five different elevators where we can market our grain locally, and most of them load grain on the river — only one of them loads rail cars. So, we want to make sure we have as many options as possible to ship grain economically, and the most economical way is by barge.”

According to the Iowa Department of transportation, one 15-barge tow carries more than twice the grain of one 100-car unit train and almost 900 times the amount of one large semi-trailer. Every barge filled with grain displaces almost 60 semi-trailers on the road.

Virtually the entire ag industry supports the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Proposal Six to improve commercial navigation on the Upper Mississippi River system. This proposal calls for installing new locks at Peoria and LaGrange on the Illinois River; installing new locks at locks 20-25 on the Mississippi River; as well as extending locks 14-18 and installing tie-off facilities and switchboats at several other locations.

Muench and Vaughan encourage all farmers to voice their support of Proposal Six at hearings in May.