Low river levels cause problems for Missouri farmers transporting harvested goods

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OSAGE BEACH, Mo. – Even with the recent rainfall, more than 85% of Missouri is still mired in a drought, forcing farmers to switch to other alternatives due to low water levels.

Governor Mike Parson said he’s hoping for large snowfalls in the northern states to help with navigation on the rivers. The agriculture industry uses the waterways to ship bulk commodities like grain. Southeast Missouri farmer Tom Jennings said his irrigation system saved his crops this year.

“We have historically sold almost everything over the river,” Jennings said. “Sometimes you can skip an irrigation, but there wasn’t any skipping of them this year. We’ were watering it all the time.”

Jennings said the ability to apply controlled amounts of water to the dry land led to a successful corn and rice crop, but now, he needs to transport his yield.

“We’ve got rice sold that we’re delivering right now, and it was supposed to be delivered to a river port, but they switched it to an in-land facility because they can’t do barges because the river is so low,” Jennings said.

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Levels along the Mississippi River could be headed for near-record lows. As of last week, the river lies about a foot and a half below its normal value. That level is forecast to reach -5.2 by mid-December.

Living near the river, Jennings said he depends on it to transport his crops but this year he’s been forced to use alternatives like rail.

“There’s a lot of grain that moves on the river and where we’re at on the eastern side of the state, there’s several river terminals we can choose from to haul, and they all have issues,” he said. “It’s a real concern to us. We’ve made a conservative effort to get as much fertilizer this fall as we could because most of the fertilizer comes in on barges. We don’t get it directly off the river, but the facility we get it from gets it from the river, and it might be a supply issue.”

Jennings said that as a farmer, he’s also dealing with other issues this year, like the cost of labor and a shortage of workers.

“The last two years, labor-wise, in the summer for us, has been really hard because the irrigation has been nonstop,” he said. “It’s really hard to find help.”

During Monday’s annual meeting of the Missouri Farm Bureau at the Lake of the Ozarks, Parson told the packed room of more than 1,500 farmers that agriculture is the state’s number one industry.

“What we need is rain; what we need is lots of rain, or we’re going to need some big snowfalls,” Parson said. “Those river levels are huge because once that slows down that cargo traffic, that’s a problem all over the state.”

Last month, Parson extended the executive order declaring a drought alert for a majority of the state. He initially signed the order on May 31, 2023, but now it will run until May 1, 2024. The executive order activates the Drought Assessment Committee. The committee, made up of state and federal agencies, plans to meet again on Dec. 18 in Jefferson City.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, west central and northeast Missouri both have counties experiencing an “extreme drought.” The rest of the state is either “abnormally dry” or in a moderate” or “severe drought.”

During October’s Drought Assessment Committee meeting, the National Weather Service said it’s been nearly a century since Missouri has seen anything like this. Mark Fuchs with NWS told the group in October that some parts of the state have been in a continuous drought for nearly two years.

The Department of Agriculture does offer a mental health resource for the farming community. The AgriStress hotline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Producers can call or text 833-897-2474 to speak to a healthcare professional.

The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is asking Missouri residents to submit information about the local drought conditions online. DNR Director Buntin said this can help the committee create more accurate maps, allowing members to work better with state and federal partners.

DNR also has a variety of resources online and continues to add information on drought mitigation and assistance opportunities.


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