Across the state of Iowa, crops are flourishing in the rich Midwestern soil, to be harvested throughout the summer and the fall. After the harvest, millions of pounds of corn, soy, wheat and other important commodities will be put onto barges and floated down the Mississippi River. Once they arrive in Louisiana, they will fill grain silos, and then be loaded onto cargo ships that will sail to ports across the globe. If you think about it, our two states are inextricably linked by agriculture and shipping — and our joint efforts providing sustenance to the world.
However, this symbiotic relationship may be in jeopardy and both states may stand to lose billions of dollars of economic output. This is due to a serious issue at the mouth of the Mississippi River, where it meets the Gulf of Mexico. What is happening is that the primary shipping channel — that cargo vessels use to enter the ship channel — is consistently not deep enough to allow ships to safely transit. What is required, and what is not happening, is for the Army Corps of Engineers to dredge the Mississippi River Ship Channel to 50 feet. Dredging is the process of removing sediment from the bottom of the River.
Dredging the Mississippi has become an ever-greater priority because the newly expanded Panama Canal now supports the movement of the larger neo-Panamax ships. The use of these ships is growing, because larger vessels reduce transportation costs.
Our concern is that due to the unreliability of the Mississippi River, ships will begin to seek alternative ports to get their grains. The most serious threat posed to our dominance of the global commodity market would be in South America, primarily Argentina which currently has a vibrant and growing agricultural system.
If these new supercargo ships abandon the Louisiana port system, there is no guarantee they will return. Iowa farmers — and farmers all across the United States — would be cut off from the global marketplace; this would send economic shock waves through rural economies. Consider that more than 60 percent of all grain exported from the United States is shipped via the Mississippi River Ship Channel. Indeed, the Mississippi River Basin produces 92 percent of the nation’s agricultural exports and 78 percent of the world’s exports of feed grains and soybeans. Every year, over $21 billion in agriculture exports are shipped through Louisiana’s port system, and shipments are up 34 percent so far in 2017.
If you consider that one of every three acres of crops planted in the U.S. are exported, it is obvious that trade is essential to the economy of a farm state like Iowa. In fact, in recent years, the total economic output produced by U.S. agriculture exports is $340 billion, including $150 billion in export value and an additional $190 billion in other economic activity. Across our nation, 1.1 million jobs are supported by U.S. agricultural exports, including 800,000 in the non-farm sector, which are required to assemble, process and distribute agricultural products for export.
Despite the importance of agricultural exports to our nation’s economy, the reason the Mississippi River is not being properly maintained by the Army Corps, is funding. The Corps simply lacks the money to devote the resources required to keep the Mississippi River open for business. Hence, we are writing this piece, because we feel that it is important that Americans all across the country are aware of this problem — and especially those people who live and work in states highly dependent on the agricultural sector. Additionally, we believe that Iowans should call on their leaders in Congress, and on the White House too, to direct the appropriate funding to ameliorate this serious problem.
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Iowa and Louisiana are two states thousands of miles apart, but linked by the Mississippi River and a commitment to export our nation’s bounty to the world. We hope this partnership will continue for many years to come. But to ensure that it does, we must work together — and combine political forces — to properly dredge the Mississippi River Ship Channel to 50 feet.
• Paul Aucoin is the executive director of the Port of South Louisiana, the largest foreign trade zone for merchandise received in the U.S. and the number one grain exporter in the nation
• Jerry Hingle serves on the board of the World Trade Center of New Orleans and chairs its Agriculture Committee.