Scott County farmer Robb Ewoldt has around $80,000 worth of soybeans in storage, waiting to be shipped down the Mississippi River.
The soybeans were supposed to be shipped in April, he said. Instead, they've been sitting in grain bins as historically high river levels have closed locks and halted barge traffic along the entire Upper Mississippi. Samantha Heilig, a spokeswoman with the Rock Island District of the Army Corps of Engineers, said locks were closed from mid-March until earlier this month.
Barge traffic is slowly starting to move again, with all of the locks now open, she said. But Ewoldt is still patiently waiting for his grain to make it down the river, along with dozens of other barges that have been tied up during this long, devastating flood season.
"We now have a limited time to transport this crop down the river for export," he said. "That's the main thing I'm concerned about. There's only a finite amount of barges that can get through the aging infrastructure on our lock and dams. Are we going to have enough time to move this crop out before we start harvesting our 2019 crop?"
With barges in high demand, he's also worried about shipping costs jumping.
"That increased cost gets passed down to the farmer," he said.
Halted barge traffic is one bullet point on a laundry list of hurdles farmers have been working to overcome this year. Iowa farmers already have struggled to sell an overabundance of grain at an unusually low price, made worse by increased tariffs. Flooded fields have caused some farmers to consider not planting this year.
For those who have been able to sell their crops, like Ewoldt, halted barge traffic has further delayed income. And farmers also have struggled to plant crops because they haven't received fertilizer, which usually arrives by barge.
However, farmers aren't the only ones hurting because of stalled river traffic. Companies shipping everything from road salt to aluminum have lost out on sales or turned to costly alternatives, said Doug Weber, a manager at Alter River Terminal Rock Island.
"This has never happened before," Weber said. "People in this industry for 50 years have never heard of anything like this for this duration."
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The company usually ships one or two barges a day, he said, but since March, Alter has shipped only a dozen.
"Sales have just disappeared," he said.
Alter ships the majority of material it receives by barge, he said, as it's the cheapest form of transportation. He said one barge can carry 1,400 to 1,800 tons, around 70 semi-trucks' worth of material. Some companies have turned to rail, while others haven't had the option as some rail lines also have been inundated by floodwater.
"Our customers are finding more expensive ways to serve their customers, by putting it on rail or sending 15 rail cars versus one barge," he said. "It's a lot more expensive, so they pass that down the road. Other than that, it's really affected our downstream customers. It's going to take a little time to recover."
During a Tuesday conference call with reporters, Dan Mecklenborg, the chief legal officer and secretary for Ingram Marine Group, said the barge company generally begins operating in mid-March with few disruptions. This year, he'll be relieved if he can start operating in late June.
"It's just unprecedented for river transportation," he said.
Now that the locks are reopened, Ewoldt said he'll be "waiting in line with everyone else," hoping his soybeans are shipped while he works to pay off last year's debt.
"Misery loves company, so we'll be waiting in line, discussing grain prices and the weather," Ewoldt said. "It's been challenging. I've never worked a day in my life until this season because now it's not too much fun. Before this it was pretty good."
Times reporter Bill Lukitsch contributed to this story.