2020 Port Update

Mississippi River Ports are a vital part of the region’s agricultural industry 

By Mark H. Stowers 

The Mississippi River remains an efficient and valuable means of transporting goods. The agricultural products and the huge agribusiness industry that has developed in the basin produce 92 percent of the nation’s agricultural exports, seventy-eight percent of the world’s exports in feed grains and soybeans along with most of the livestock and hogs produced nationally. Sixty percent of all grain exported from the U.S. is shipped on the Mississippi River through the Port of New Orleans and the Port of South Louisiana.

The Army Corps of Engineers keeps busy helping to maintain ports along the Mississippi  River. To move goods up and down the Mississippi, the Corps maintains a nine-foot shipping channel from Baton Rouge to Minneapolis. From Baton Rouge past New Orleans to Head of Passes, a 45-foot channel is maintained to allow ocean-going vessels access to ports between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

Mississippi Delta farmers have kept the ports in the region busy with grain from this year’s harvest.  There’s much more still in storage on farms and waiting for positive commodity price changes to bring it the ports for shipping. The ports have experienced both low and high water and like the rest of the business world has had to find ways to deal with the pandemic and its hurdles. 

The Port of Rosedale in Bolivar County offers road and rail access from Highway 1 and Highway 8 and a proposed I-69 roadway will one day include a new Mississippi River Bridge crossing. The railway access is in the planning stage to reinstate more than thirty-two miles of railway from Greenville and also a connection to Greenwood. There are two bulk docks with conveyors to load and unload and one general cargo dock. Services there include barge loading and unloading, dry bulk transloading as well as barge staging and towing and fleeting. There is also warehouse, open-air storage, boat repairs and truck scales on site. Robert Maxwell serves as the Port Director and has seen a busy season this year. 

“We are still in the midst of our loading and plan to be busy for hopefully several more months,” says Maxwell. “Rice production seems to be up significantly from the past few years. Soybean harvest was particularly fast and hectic but it seemed to be a good year for the farmers and the elevators. That being said this has been a good to better than average year.”

 Maxwell didn’t have any specific numbers as “we still have quite a bit to continue loading hopefully.”

From his vantage point, the Port of Rosedale has not suffered much from COVID-19 problems. And, the port worked its way through the varying water heights.

“No, not in any noticeable way. Low water was a concern for a bit but we luckily got some extra water and it seems to be staying at a much more manageable level for now,” says Maxwell. 

South of Rosedale in Washington County, the Port of Greenville has been particularly busy. The port handles a wide spectrum of cargoes around the clock and is known for supplying steel companies around the world by barge, truck and container. The port has both road and rail access with Highways 82 and 278 offering entrance as well as Highway 1. There is 15 miles of railway in Greenville that also runs to Greenwood with Class 1 CN rail available. The wharf-type double pier and concrete dock offers its customers a covered overhead bridge crane with parallel barge slots. The bridge crane has a 30-ton lift capacity. 

Services include barge loading and unloading as well as transloading. Harbor and fleeting services along with marine and dry-dock and repair facilities. They offer both open yard and hard stand storage for customers as well as warehousing. All weather transloading is available with a covered bridge crane with transloading between rail, truck and barge and truck scales are on site as well. 

Port Director Tommy Hart has seen plenty of 18-wheelers filled with commodities and has been working with annual high and low water problems. And this season has been tough on his crew with COVID-19 quarantines.

“We had a very good harvest season. We are right at the tail end of the push,” says Hart. “I don’t have any total numbers but I know it was a good harvest compared to earlier years.”

Hart explained, “The trucks will run all year long as many farmers have storage on their farms. They’ll bring it in as needed with sales.”

The port director and his staff have been fending off the annual challenges of doing business at a river port.

“It’s been very challenging in several ways,” says Hart. “We had another high-water period that created some problems for us. When it gets too high, we can’t unload barges. We helped a few other companies when their facilities got too high, we still had enough room to move some of the work over here and get it done.”

The port has twenty-nine businesses and nineteen terminals that Hart works with to ensure loading and unloading could get done. 

“It increases costs and we’re trying to be as efficient as we can. High water and low water periods are always a challenge. And thrown the pandemic in on top of that and I never want to see 2020 again. We survived through but we’re not over it. Everyone has a renewed sense of caution lately to be more careful than we’ve been.”

The pandemic wreaked a bit of havoc on having enough personnel on a day-to-day basis as well.

“The COVID issue impacted us from an employee point based on the actions adopted during the period. There were times when employees were sent home due to possible exposure,” he said. “We paid our people all the way through and no one suffered a loss of employment. But it hurt our scheduling and our ability to work with enough crew on occasion.”

Hart has eleven full time employees at the Port of Greenville. The problems with low water, which is a current problem delays barges that can’t get in.

“We had some challenges until the dredge got here and it left today (November 12),” he says. “Our depth in the channel had gotten pretty close to loading levels and we could only take one barge out of the port at a time to the river. Now that dredging has been completed, we can make that up.”

The Corps usually takes about a week to dredge the port. Hart noted that approximately three to $4 million was spent in new construction activity. “And we’re about to execute a contract for $400,000 to improve a building here. And we’ve got another contract to improve a connector road. That will be about $500,000. That’s the port commission itself. Other businesses have expanded their equipment and facilities. But it’s not as big as previous years just because of the way this pandemic has hit a lot of things.”

The Port of Vicksburg handles 14 million tons of freight each year and has the state’s only rail crossing over the river. It has been designated as a Foreign Trade Zone and Port of Entry and also maintains a US Customs Service. There is both road access through Highway 61 and Interstate 20. The rail line connects to Jackson and to Tallulah, Louisiana. Their facilities include warehouse space, open bulk and hard surface loading area with direct dump ramp and direct barge loading as well as palletized load handling. The port services offer all-weather loading and unloading, warehousing, liquid warehousing facilities, barge fleeting, marshaling along with barge cleaning and refurbishing. There is more than 1,000 acres available for associated industrial development at the Port of Vicksburg. Pablo Diaz is the Port Director and has been collecting shipping information but does not have a complete report at press time.

“We are in the process of doing our annual survey and data collection to determine tonnage for the Vicksburg area,” says Diaz. “For that reason, we cannot yet report any final numbers. In terms of how this year compares to last year, we have unfortunately seen a drop in tonnage that would make this year a below average year for our region.”

There were several factors that Diaz attributed to the lower volume.

“A combination of COVID-19 as well as the low price of oil has affected our volume in Vicksburg. That being said, the region continues to see a sharp increase in interest from wood related industries, which are both moving and expanding in the area. We see huge potential for river transportation opportunities from that industry sector as we go into 2021 and beyond.”

Each year, several thousand vessels carry around 500 million tons of cargo up and down the Mississippi, including more than half of the country’s grain exports. The Mississippi Delta Ports continue to strive to keep the barges moving in both high and low water and even through a pandemic.