Historic flooding on the Mississippi River is bringing record-breaking delays to the year’s barge season for Savage businesses along the Minnesota River, several business officials said.
The latest start to barge season on record in Savage was May 15, but barges aren’t expected to arrive until July this year, said Lisa Brickey, the warehouse manager at Mosaic Crop Nutrition.
“I’ve been here 25 years, and it's never been this late,” she said.
The problem echoes last year but for different reasons. Savage-bound barges in 2018 were held up in St. Paul when the Minnesota River flooded. This time around, flooding downstream prevented barges from even making it that far.
The Minnesota River fell below flood stage on Wednesday, according to the Army Corps of Engineers, but Brickey said it’ll take a couple weeks for barges to make their way to St. Paul on the Mississippi River from St. Louis. The U.S. Coast Guard closed the river there earlier this month due to high water and fast currents.
Mosaic handles fertilizer, which goes out to Midwestern cooperatives, and salt, which goes to Cargill to be packaged for water conditioning or road salt. The fertilizer’s phosphates come to Savage from Florida, and the potash comes by train from Canada.
When farmers were ready to plant their crops earlier this year, Brickey said, Mosaic’s access to the railroad network gave them an edge over competitors who depend entirely on barge service, but many farmers still weren’t able to access fertilizer.
“Pretty much everything is in the ground right now, and a lot of it went in unfertilized,” she said. “It’s going to be an interesting crop year.”
The Minnesota River rose to nearly 713 feet and major flood stage in March. Brickey said it becomes unsafe to unload barges when the river hits 702 feet.
At CHS, where grain is loaded onto barges to be sent to the Gulf of Mexico for export, the dock sits at 705 feet.
One barge holds over 1,600 tons of product, which is the equivalent of 70 semi-trucks and 16 railcars, according to CHS Terminal Manager Greg Oberle. Between here and St. Louis, 15 barges are strapped together and transported on the river with one tow boat. A tow pulls 23,000 tons of product.
“There have been no barges loaded in the Savage port this year, and this is the first time since the elevator was built in 1982 that we have not loaded a barge before June,” Oberle said in an email. “We have the ability to load shuttle trains; however it cannot make up for the efficiency of barge transport.”
Oberle said he can’t disclose how much grain moves through the Savage terminal; CHS moves more than 2 billion bushels of grain annually.
Ceres Global and Consolidated Grain and Barge Co.’s terminal in Savage holds 9.2 million bushels of grain and will remain full until the barges begin to arrive, said facility manager Steve Kucala.
“We are owed barges waiting to come up to the Twin Cities,” he said.
The terminal holds also corn and beans. Crops are brought by farmers in trucks, stored and then sent out on barges down to New Orleans. From there, the product goes out on the Gulf for export.
May, June and July are the busiest months for farmers looking to unload last year’s crop, but with holding facilities at capacity, many farmers looking to sell their product were told they needed to wait.
Once barges resume, Kucala said they’ll need to work fast to move as much product as possible as the peak season winds down.