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Mississippi River Closure's Impact On Illinois Farmer

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Five miles of the Mississippi River remain closed to barge traffic. The Coast Guard closed the section near St. Louis last Thursday. That's because of safety concerns due to unusually high water. That is very bad news for farmers like Joe Zumwalt. He farms soybeans, corn and wheat on several thousand acres in Hancock County, Ill., right along the Mississippi.

Mr. Zumwalt joins us now from his farm. Welcome.

JOE ZUMWALT: Thank you. Pleasure to be here and glad to be with you.

CHANG: So how big of a hit are your crop sales taking because of this flooding?

ZUMWALT: You know, we've had numerous issues here over the past three to four, almost six months because our portion of the river has been closed to barge traffic for far longer than that. Once you get to certain points, river stages - they shut off that barge traffic. And even if the barge traffic were to be able to be taking place, a number of the grain terminals aren't able to load those barges because the water is so high, the infrastructure in place just isn't able to load those barges. So we've been having the hit, I guess, you'd say of that for quite some time, especially when those grain terminals are still full from last fall's harvest.

CHANG: How much of your supply gets transported on the Mississippi?

ZUMWALT: Pretty much a hundred percent of our corn and soybean production goes to those river terminals and then, in turn, goes to the export market.

CHANG: And at the same time that this is happening, you're also looking at a possibly escalating trade war with China. How is that exacerbating what you're going through right now?

ZUMWALT: You know, between the flooding issues and river issues and then the trade war and the tariff war with China and also the renegotiation during the old NAFTA, we had a number of trade issues that were kind of tossed up in the air, and we're waiting for the puzzle pieces to fall back down in place.

I mean, I think in the Midwest and agriculture in general, you know, supported the president early on in improving trade relations with China. But unfortunately those in the livestock industry and soybean producers are taking the brunt of the hit.

CHANG: Well, what would you like to see specifically from this trade deal, if they ever reach a deal?

ZUMWALT: We'd definitely like to have our full trade ratio, I guess you'd say. The amount of trade we were doing with China back a year ago - we'd love to see that back.

Obviously from a soybean producer, we're anxious to see that trade resume with China. And hopefully after all of this and the - I guess you'd say the sacrifice that those of us in ag production have made over the past six months - that we get a more than positive outcome and a much better trade deal. And we need it fairly quickly.

CHANG: And of course, your business's recovery depends in part on the flooding situation. Will you be OK with that? Is that too late?

ZUMWALT: Given our river levels, our section of the river will continue to be closed. This is just my own speculation in looking at forecasted river levels. It will be closer to June before our local terminals are able to load barges again. And so we are definitely, from a producer's standpoint, going to be in a little bit of a bottleneck to get our old crop hauled out and into terminal so we can prepare for the next fall. And the grain terminals are in turn going to have a bottleneck because they've got to do the same thing in order to get geared up and get some of those bins empty to prepare for fall. We are looking at some hiccups.

You know, the other side of this that we haven't necessarily hit on is the impacts of the flooding through the Midwest and the high rivers on the rail transportation system as well. There's a number of rail tracks that are underwater near the river and a number of bridges that are unusable during high water times.

CHANG: Does that affect transport of your crops?

ZUMWALT: Yes, it does, too. So when the river closes, we have to rely on rail. And when the rail is then impacted, we kind of have a double whammy. There's a...

CHANG: Yeah.

ZUMWALT: ...Great reduction in transportation going on right now.

CHANG: Well, Joe, I wish you the best of luck as you're trying to forge through this. Thank you very much for joining us today.

ZUMWALT: You're welcome - pleasure to be with you and be glad to chat with you more in the future. Hopefully the whole situation a week from now is in better light. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.