OSCEOLA, Ark.—Jeff Worsham is a realist regarding the weather because he believes what he sees.
That the regional drought is a bad one, and getting worse, is beyond dispute. The Mississippi River is at the lowest it's been in decades, he said.
Worse, the barges are backing up because of it, running aground, and wreaking havoc on the regional supply chain.
"There's no relief in sight as far as rainfall," said Worsham, port manager of Poinsett Rice and Grain's loading facility in Osceola, Arkansas.
When will it rain next?
Worsham said, "Who knows?"
Unprecedented Times"I've never seen it this bad," said Worsham, who's been with the company for more than 20 years. "We had water [levels] close to this in 2012. But it was August, and it wasn't the harvesting season. It wasn't a big deal for us."
At the height of the corn and soybean harvest, and with tons of products waiting to be shipped, Worsham remains optimistic.
"A lot of the soybeans have been stored on the barges. We'll be down a little bit on volume and stretched out. We'll be able to get the bushels [out]. It's just going to take longer," he told The Epoch Times.
Worsham said a towboat would eventually drag the stuck barge to deeper water and free up the other barges. He said that until then, nothing can get in or out of the port—and then, the phone rang.
It was Worsham's boss asking for an update.
"It's more than hard," Worsham told his supervisor. "They would get them [out] if they could. ... I don't know what else to do."
The situation is no less challenging with other competing barge lines, Worsham said.
In recent weeks, hundreds of barges have become stalled in the receding Mississippi, caught in the lower depths. In early October, some 2,000 barges reportedly clogged the channels in long pileups along the river south of Memphis, Tennessee.
The barges need around nine feet of depth to navigate. The problem is that in many places, water levels have fallen so low that even the tugboats are getting stuck.
Situation 'Grave'The Mississippi, the nation's second-largest river, stretches 2,340 miles from its source at Lake Itasca in northwestern Minnesota to the Gulf. The river provides easy access for Midwestern farmers looking to ship their products cheaply and efficiently.
Commercial barges each year account for about 418 million tons of goods moved between U.S. ports along the Mississippi River system. Nationally, it's around 700 million tons.
But as water levels continue to fall, it allows less room for the barges to navigate and more chances to become stuck, said Ben Lerner, vice president of public affairs for the American Waterways Operators, a national trade association.
Lerner said that the Mississippi River being at a historically low level presents a significant challenge for the nation's supply chain.
"In some spots in the river, it's at its lowest level since 1988, so it's a real challenge for the supply chain and our industry," Lerner told The Epoch Times.
Barges laden with agricultural products now have longer waiting times to deliver their cargos while in transit, causing backups along the river.
Lerner said that a standard barge has a carrying capacity of 16 rail cars or 70 semi-trucks, but it's cheaper and more efficient.
"The bottom line is, the American barge industry is a major component of the global and American supply chain. If we can't move cargo on the Mississippi efficiently, that ultimately has far-reaching economic implications," he said.
"I don't want to understate the gravity of the situation we're dealing with—the tremendous strain on the supply chain."
At its widest point, the Mississippi River is more than seven miles wide, allowing for as many as 42 lashed barges to operate, pushed by a single towboat.
"We've got a river now that's shallower and narrower than it's ever been," Lerner said.
Many commercial barge lines have reduced loads by as much as 50 percent to compensate for the shallower water. Other barge lines have switched to shipping via the more costly and less efficient rail and trucking systems.
"The more shippers switch to rail or truck to move their cargo, the more congested our railways and highways ultimately become," Lerner said.
It also translates into higher costs for the nation's agricultural producers, 92 percent of whose output travels through the Mississippi River basin.
About 60 percent of grain and 54 percent of soybeans for U.S. export rely on barges for delivery to foreign and domestic markets, according to FreightWaves.
'Game Time' for Farmers"It's a significant challenge for U.S. agriculture and farmers to be successful and profitable," said Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition.
The organization includes 13 state soybean boards, including the American Soybean Association and the United Soybean Board, and encompasses 85 percent of soybean production.
Steenhoek said that while farmers are geographically distant from coastal ports, they enjoy easy access to inland waterways such as the Mississippi, Ohio, and Illinois rivers.
"It's game time for agriculture," Steenhoek said, adding that "when the system operates as normal, there's no more effective way of moving commodities long distances in an economical manner" than with commercial barges.
"When the system goes awry, it poses a significant hardship."
The problem going into 2022 was a lack of rain and snowmelt to replenish inland rivers and allow the ground to become saturated ahead of the spring planting season.
While crops this year have benefited from the available moisture, very little has made its way into the water system, contributing to lower river levels.
"When you have a [barge] grounding, it's a major effort to alleviate," Steenhoek said. "It shuts down the river. So you have to resort to putting less freight per barge."
He said that in the case of soybeans, for every 12 inches of lost channel depth, a standard barge must shed 5,000 bushels—about 136 tons—to stay afloat. That means fewer barges can operate in tandem, resulting in the industry-imposed maximum of 25 lashed barges per shipment.
"You don't have your optimal route available to you. It still will find a way—maybe not as much as normal, not as efficiently as normal," Steenhoek said.
"Whenever you have a disruption like this, those costs get passed on. It adds a lot of costs, [and] the farmer will bear a lot of that.
"Some of it's going to be born by the shipper. It adds insult to injury when you've got challenges with our inland waterway system."
Other barge lines, including Consolidated Grain and Barge Co. in West Memphis, Arkansas, have begun storing beans in large outdoor piles under tarps in the wake of the barge crisis.
Steenhoek compared switching transportation modes from barge to rail and truck to a garden hose attached to a fire hydrant, where "you've got lots of [product] volume" and less efficient ways to move it.
Worse Before It Gets BetterPoinsett Rice and Grain operates a fleet of 100 barges, each of which carries about 85,000 bushels of rice, soybeans, or corn to ports along the river. Those volumes during the drought have been about 35,000 bushels fewer to reduce weight and increase floating capacity.
"Hopefully, we will be able to continue operations. It's gotten a lot worse[, but] we're still loading," Worsham said.
The company, which typically ships about 5 million or 6 million bushels per year, had expected to ship 8 million bushels this year, given the robust harvest.
Worsham said that number is down to about 3 million bushels.
"We'll probably match last year's volume of around 4 million bushels," he said.
Barge loader Raul Rivas said that the barge logjam at the Poinsett facility is a logistics headache.
"We can't load that many barges right now. The traffic right here can't get in and out. Right now, this will be our last barge for a while," he said.
Typically, Rivas's crew will load three barges daily with soybeans, rice, or corn from loading towers.
"There isn't much we can do. Everything we've got is overstocked or on the ground. We got one [barge] stuck last night. We had to get to the tugboat at least until it broke free. Then we finished loading [the barge]," he said.
"Supposedly, when it gets down to a negative 12 [feet level], that's when they're supposed to shut the barges and boats down."
Poinsett deckhand Clifton Brown said that dock workers have been "running into a lot of problems" with the low water levels, now going on two months.
"That's about the worst of it—[barges] getting stuck. It's pretty rough on us just loading barges right now. See that barge over there, stuck on the bank, on the corner?" he said.
Brown pointed toward the far end of the port at the former water line where it "used to be to those trees."
In the current drought, Brown also remains positive, saying it's only a matter of time before the Mississippi is back up and running as the water level fluctuates.
"We'll be down for another week or so until the river comes back up," he said. "Everything is good."