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A farmer co-op thinks the return of barge traffic farther upstream on the Missouri River is good for business

Western Iowa farmers have more access to international markets through a new port along the Missouri River in Monona County.
NEW Cooperative
Western Iowa farmers have more access to international markets through a new port along the Missouri River in Monona County.

Barges are back in western Iowa, floating cargo up and down the Missouri River – and giving area farmers a real shipping alternative for the first time since the early 2000s.

Western Iowa farmers have been able to send their goods to Europe and Asia, but not with the same ease as eastern Iowa farmers who have direct access to the Mississippi River – an artery for United States trade that ships 60 percent of all U.S. grain exports.

Farmers instead had to send their commodities by truck or rail to eastern Iowa, where they could then be shipped via the Mississippi River, and eventually to China or Japan.

It wasn’t always this way. Ports once thrived in Blencoe and Sioux City, some 40 miles upriver.

But Fort Dodge-based NEW Cooperative brought that access back to the region in mid-April with an $11 million barge terminal near Blencoe – the northernmost port along the Missouri River. The co-op unloaded its last barge of the season on Nov. 20, estimating that close to 80,000 tons of corn, soybeans and other products moved through the port.

During this shipping season, the Port of Blencoe saw around 35 barges come up and unload products – the majority of which was fertilizer. The port sent around 25 barges down the river loaded with things like dried distillers grains, soybeans and corn, the co-op said.

NEW Cooperative’s director of operations Frank Huseman said some of the barges that came up the Missouri River and unloaded wouldn’t take farmers’ goods back down the river because of “contractual obligations," the big reason why the number of barges that came into the barge terminal was greater than the number that left.

“Things that we learn as we go into the season,” Huseman said. “In order to really make things work and to be most efficient, everything that comes up with a load should go back down with a load. So we’ll be addressing that by next year on how we manage our freight and whether we’re doing some arrangements with different barge companies.”

Huseman said NEW Cooperative is happy with how the facility has performed. As for whether it’s helped western Iowa farmers get better access to a world market, Huseman said it’s done just that.

“It’s only going to increase in value and it’s only going to increase volumes,” Huseman said. “We’re going to continue to expand the offerings that we’ll have here.”

The co-op is looking at possibly adding another commodity building – a place where it can bring the product offloaded from barges and hold product to be loaded onto barges. Huseman said NEW Cooperative would also like to have another offload site where it can handle liquid products like corn oil and liquid nitrogen.

“We’re still trying to figure out how can we continue to improve and how can we continue to get volume through the facility,” Huseman said. “We didn’t really know when we started how long it would take to unload a barge.”

It takes between 4 and 4.5 hours to unload a barge, Huseman said. But the co-op is hoping it can get it down to 3.5 hours next shipping season.

Katie Peikes was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio from 2018 to 2023. She joined IPR as its first-ever Western Iowa reporter, and then served as the agricultural reporter.