It has been an tough year for barge traffic on the Mississippi River and at the Winona Port. Locks and dams up and down the central Mississippi River, from Missouri to Iowa, are closed again this week due to high water. Locks near St. Louis were closed early last month for the same reason. Early this spring and last year, low water levels were an issue for river traffic. "It's an up and down business," said CHS, Inc. Terminal Manager Ken Garness.
The rate of spring barge traffic at the Winona Port has decreased by nearly half this year. "Things have definitely slowed down," said Winona Port Authority Director of Economic Development Lucy McMartin. That has a financial impact for the Winona Port Authority, too. The city department collects a tonnage fee of nearly 30 cents per ton shipped at the port. For barges that can haul 1,000 tons, that resulted in thousands fewer dollars that the Port Authority collected in tonnages fees.
Garness explained that the Winona branch of CHS, which ships grain out of the Winona Port, was lucky that recent closures on the central Mississippi River did not significantly affect its operations. Shipments are simply waiting upstream of the lock closures en route to the Gulf. "Maybe by pure luck," plenty of CHS barges were north of the now-closed locks prior to closure, so the Winona plant had all of the barges it needed to ship products south, Garness explained. If those barges had been stuck on the downstream side of the Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri locks, the company would be losing business. "All of our storage capacity is on the barges," Garness explained. If barges were not available, supply trucks would have to take their products elsewhere.
The late start to the shipping season did not hurt CHS's Winona terminal too badly, either, Garness said. Competition from local ethanol suppliers after last year's drought-damaged corn crop decreased shipments for CHS in Winona. "We were very fortunate we were never disrupted," he said.
Now, what happens to global corn markets will impact business at the Winona Port, Garness explained. Competitive pricing from foreign corn producers have driven down demand for American corn, he said. Record domestic prices for corn have likely also helped create opportunities for foreign producers. Everything the Winona terminal loads is for export, he said. "It's a global market and CHS tries to stay on top of it."