Upgrade our transportation system – March 2012

One of the things that we Americans don’t notice is the readily available food supply for this nation.  We in agriculture recognize this issue and take a lot of steps to try and educate the rest of the population about what a miracle our food production in the United States is for us all.

An important aspect of our food supply that is also overlooked is our transportation system.  We have a transportation system in the U.S. that is probably second to none amongst nations of the world.  The system is something we have developed over several hundred years starting with the canal and river system which expanded when rail systems were developed and then our road system followed by air transportation system.  Maybe because like agriculture these changes occurred over several years and in some cases lifetimes, nobody really noticed.

A recent article in an overseas publication looked at the U.S. transportation infrastructure as it relates to the ability to move agriculture products and it found the U.S. has started experiencing problems with the current system.  These problems have been masked by the past history of oversupply, but with the tightening of food supplies throughout the world, inefficiencies in the system have started to manifest . 

The article was written by Treena Hein and printed in the Nov. 2011 Australian Farm Journal.  The article pointed out that, “. . . while American farmers were producing grain at record levels and international customers were purchasing more than ever, the grain transportation system was not keeping up.”  The article also quoted a couple of speakers from the U.S. Grains Council’s International Marketing Conference held last February.   Ken Eriksen of Informa Economics and Kurt Nagle (CEO of the American Association of Port Authorities) both stressed that, “. . . the U.S. needed a wake-up call.”  “Developing countries are seeking the opportunity that upgrading their infrastructure can bring, and may are putting higher priority on their infrastructure than we are,” Eriksen said.

Several years ago the American Farm Bureau Federation hosted a meeting dealing with the problems associated with the lack of effort and funding being expended by the Army Corp of Engineers in upgrading the river transportation utilized to move freight, including agricultural products.  This was before many of the floods which have occurred recently.  At that time there was considerable effort by some in the environmental community to remove some of this infrastructure so the rivers would resume a more “natural” course.  Even after the recent floods there have been calls by some of these groups to tear out levies and other structures.

The only problem with their calls is that several million acres of productive agricultural land will be removed from production.  It will also mean the barge traffic that transports more than 50 percent of the commodities to the ports will be reduced or maybe in some cases eliminated.  If we were the only game in town perhaps it wouldn’t be a critical issue, but as pointed out other countries are gearing up and improving their transportation infrastructure.  These two double whammies could have a significant impact on both agricultural bottom lines and food availability.

One thing is for certain, if we don’t pay attention to our transportation infrastructure, we could soon see other countries taking more of our agricultural trade surplus away from us.  It’s time we re-evaluate our transportation system and begin to remove the impediments to upgrading it before we slip any further. 

By Ken Hamilton, Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation Executive Vice President

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