Local farmers are looking forward to getting back to business as usual following last year's drought that wiped out millions of acres of corn and reduced barge loads along a low Mississippi River.
The dry spell diminished the river levels and slashed corn exports to under 800 million bushels. Most of the fleet that Heartland Barge Management LLC in Columbia leases has been docked this year, but company senior vice president John Johnson said the upcoming export year, which runs from Sept. 1 through Aug. 31, is expected to be better.
"The worst is over," Johnson said. "The key is we have a great crop out there and things are certainly looking up."
Johnson said usually it takes two consecutive seasons of healthy crops to declare a comeback, and this season is the beginning. He said the latest projections from the USDA cite as many as 1.4 bushels to come down the river by the upcoming harvest. But that is still below the 1.8 million bushels that were shipped down the river the year prior. Johnson said corn exports probably need to return to the 1.8 billion mark before the market can be declared healthy once again.
Belleville corn farmer Kevin Stumpf is also looking forward to a better harvest. He said he was fortunate to even have a crop last year, as some farmers in Southern Illinois did not.
"Last year we never had a standing chance," Stumpf said. "It is a lot different this year. The corn is doing really good."
St. Clair County and Madison County Farm Bureau Manager Tom Jett said he also expects a good corn crop for metro-east area farmers. However, he said the recent lack of rain may hurt local soybean crops.
"I think that locally you will have a really good corn crop," Jett said. "They need this hot weather we're having right now. But the soybeans may not be so good. There are a lot of areas in the counties that haven't had rain in quite a while. That will impact soybeans crops, at least locally."
Stumpf said that this season, farmers had to deal with excessive rain and flooding. Now, conditions are dry again, and while the harvest is still a few weeks away, he also said his crop could use some rain soon.
"With the late planting and everything we had to contend with, all of the water and now the heat, it's still a good year," he said. "It will not hurt the corn as much as it will hurt beans if we don't get rain."
Mike Rainey said the current dry spell is pushing river levels back down. As the general manager of American Milling Co., which transfers bulk cargoes of coal, grain and soybeans from rail to barge in Cahokia, Rainey said the region needs rain soon so it can maintain larger barge hauls to transport the anticipated increase in corn.
"The gauge in St. Louis has fallen back and as it gets closer to getting drags cut back on barge line, it will have an effect on supporting higher freight prices," Rainey said.
In Fairmont City, Ceres Barge Line has been towing 10-foot drafts along the river after they were forced to reduce tows to 8.6 feet a year ago. Company co-owner Mark Mestemacher said corn exports only topped 725 million bushels last season and he has read projections that call for 1.3 billion bushels this coming season.
"We are not in the dire straits like we were last time," Mestemacher said. "We are looking at a pretty good crop."
Lynn Muench, senior vice president of the American Waterways Operators in St. Louis, said the cargo market has not been as strong this year because of the lack of product and recent EPA regulations that limit coal use.
"It has nothing to do with water levels," Muench said. "We didn't get any rain last year and we didn't have anything to export."
Jim Patterson is hoping for a better season. His company, Osage Marine in St. Louis, provides harbor services on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers and builds tows for clients. He also said recent government regulations over coal use and the drop in corn and soybeans exports this year have hurt local river commerce.
"Product-wise, it has not been a good year," Patterson said. "The drought last year has had a huge effect. Liquid carriers are doing great. Their business is very robust, but there is a lack of agricultural product, corn and soybeans, and with the downturn in the coal business and dry cargo companies, it has been a pretty tough year."
Patterson also said the region needs rain to help the crops as harvest time approaches. He said if farmers are not able to get good prices for their corn, they are liable to hold on to it.
"If the price isn't really great, a lot of farmers will sit on their product," he said. "They have a lot of storage. Almost every piece of corn out there was shipped last year. Storage is all empty. If they don't need to, they will sit on it and wait till the price gets better."
Johnson said the larger crops that are coming on river levels that are higher than last year should help propel a turnaround.
"I really think we're through the worst of this," he said. "But it's just like anything else. It will take some time to recover."
Contact reporter Will Buss at email@example.com or 239-2526.