Look at a line graph that tracks freight markets over the last two years and you may mistake it for the very waves the vessels traverse on the open ocean. Up and down the vessel goes, and so have the rates.

The Baltic Dry Index (BDI), an assessment of the average cost to ship raw materials such as grains, coal and iron ore, hit a 13-year high on October 7 at 5,650, yet three weeks later, it climbed down 28% to 4,056 on October 27.

Disruptions and More

The effects of COVID-19 have turned the traditional flow of sea commerce upside down. And as economies reemerge from the pandemic-induced lull, logistic obstacles have abounded. “Global Supply-Chain Problems Escalate” and “Cargo Piles Up at Ports” are just two of the headlines outlining the shipping industry’s challenges. Disruptions to the supply chain, port congestion, and logistical challenges all add to the run-up in freight markets.

Grains, including wheat, are traditionally shipped using bulk carriers like Panamax, Handymax and Capesize vessels that contain large cargo holds to segregate grains. Cargo ships, the more familiar vessel for the trans-ocean shipping of retail items, only carry small volumes of grain. However, as extraordinary times created the need for more extraordinary efforts, the massive U.S. retailer Walmart recently chartered a dry bulk cargo ship to carry merchandise to circumvent global supply chain disruptions. Other retailers may do the same as the holiday season approaches.

Idled Vessels

That would not be a bargain because 16% of the world’s dry bulk fleet is waiting to unload at various ports around the world, with 6% of those vessels waiting at Chinese ports. The inefficiencies caused by loaded vessels idling outside ports translate directly to tighter supply despite higher demand and, thus, higher prices. Dry bulk shipping rates were below $20,000 per day last January but rates, led by Capesize vessels, hit $85,000 per day in September. Grain buyers still must ship wheat and pay the higher prices, pushing up all rates across dry bulk carriers.

Global import for grain has also increased year-over-year. For example, China’s demand for grains has equated to around 25% of worldwide demand. Looking back, in the mid-2000s, the number of dry bulk carriers outweighed the demand for such vessels. However, an economic boom in China starting around 2006 saturated the dry bulk market leading to greater demand and a soaring BDI. Eventually, shipping companies added to their fleets, and the added capacity helped freight markets to stabilize. Then the global financial crisis reduced the demand for such vessels and slowed shipbuilding. Now a new spike, starting in 2020, has driven demand up again and daily rates for dry bulk shipping. The nearby market remains high while the forward market is much lower, creating a significant inverse. Exporters who need to ship now must pay the higher prices.

Freight Markets Export Elevator


Importers in South Korea, the fifth-largest U.S. wheat customer, based on a 5-year average, has seen freight rates double from US$40 per metric ton (MT) in 2020 to around US$80 per MT dollars today, said C.Y. Kang, Country Director for U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) based in Seoul. Kang also noted that the BDI Index in 2020 averaged 1,064 while this year it has averaged 2,941, a 176% increase. Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer, has suspended the 15% price advantage it offered the state shipping line as GASC, the Egyptian state commodities buyer, tries to find ways to lower the overall cost of wheat imports.

High oil prices are also keeping freight rates elevated. On Tuesday, oil futures hit their highest levels since 2014 but started to slump Thursday, hitting their lowest level in two weeks at $80.58 as U.S. crude inventories rose more than expected. One market analyst said that energy prices are unlikely to weaken for the remainder of the year as supply remains restrained, but demand returns to the 5-year average. Oil sold for around $15 per barrel in April 2020 versus today, a 431% increase.

Seeing the Top?

Jay O’Neil, a commodities consultant, has outlined all today’s obstacles in the export freight supply chain in a video presentation that will be available to U.S. wheat customers in early November. On top of long lines at ports, there is a shortage of vessels, containers, skilled labor at ports, warehouse workers, a 30% shortage of truck drivers, railroad cars and even chassis to attach containers to train cars. In his presentation, O’Neil says that despite the logistical mess, which could extend into mid-2022, the dry bulk market is likely to have hit its top.

As these circumstances change globally, logistical headaches may ease as more workers return and more consistent patterns resume. For now, though, the tight supply of vessels and the consistent appetite for grains is helping keep the global dry bulk business at historic levels.

Stay up to date on U.S. wheat market information at

By Michael Anderson, USW Market Analyst


Private grain companies in the U.S. wheat export system in the Pacific Northwest (PNW) overcome challenging logistics to deliver wheat that consistently meets contract specifications to buyers around the world. Grain sellers based in Gulf, Lakes and Atlantic ports operate very similar logistical systems to export wheat and other grains.

We are sharing a video and written look at how these successful companies do their work serving U.S. wheat farmers and overseas wheat buyers.

Sourcing Wheat From the Interior

An overseas buyer contracts with an exporter for wheat of specific class, grade, quality and price. It is then up to the exporter to source that wheat and get it loaded at the contracted price.

They do this reliably through a very efficient, system that moves the wheat to market using trucks, barges and rail to the vessel, often within a two-week shipping window.

U.S. wheat export system starts at country elevators.

U.S. wheat export system starts at interior elevators where wheat purchased from farmers is loaded onto train cars for delivery to export elevators.

In the U.S. wheat export system, grain sellers source U.S. wheat supplies from local elevators close to the farms.

Hard red spring (HRS) wheat comes mainly from the Dakotas and Montana. Hard red winter (HRW) wheat originates mostly in Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska and some from PNW states.

Those classes are loaded onto dedicated 110 car unit trains that haul the wheat over the Rocky Mountains and down the Columbia River Gorge to the export elevators.

Farmers deliver much of the soft white (SW) and white club wheat grown in Washington, Oregon and Idaho to grain facilities on the Snake, Columbia or Willamette Rivers where it is loaded onto barges or trains for the ports.

In the U.S. wheat export system, barge transportation is efficient and safe.

In the U.S. wheat export system, barges are the most cost-efficient transportation method. In the Pacific Northwest, wheat can move by barge to export elevators from as far away as Idaho because of the series of locks and dams that make safe, efficient navigation possible on the Columbia-Snake River System.

Because U.S. wheat is graded and segregated by class and quality at every step of the supply system, the export elevator knows they will receive the wheat they need to fill their customer’s contract.

Highly Automated Process

The receiving process at elevators in the U.S. wheat export system is highly automated. Numerous sensors and cameras allow only a few people to unload the wheat very quickly into temporary holding bins segregated by class, grade and quality.

Barges in this tributary can discharge 600 metric tons of wheat per hour. Unit train cars are opened and unloaded in less than 18 hours.

The export elevator’s shipping system is also automated. One person from a control room can select wheat from different storage bins and blend them together to be loaded onto the bulk vessel the buyer has chartered.

But, under U.S. law, that cannot happen until the wheat is inspected to certify that the quality loaded matches the customer’s specifications.

This highly regulated, standardized process is conducted by the USDA’s Federal Grain Inspection Service, or a state inspection agency supervised by and subject to the same standards as FGIS.

FGIS inspection and certification is required by law in the U.S. wheat export system.

FGIS inspection makes  the U.S. wheat export system uniquely valuable. A random sample of every sub lot of wheat is broken down into specified quantities by FGIS officials and weighing, inspection and certification is standardized and objective. FGIS inspection data also yields information that buyers can use to get the most value from their tenders. 

In this process, a specific amount of wheat is sampled every 15 to 20 seconds as it flows from the elevator into designated shipping bins holding from 1,000 to 2,000 metric tons.

The sample is collected in the FGIS lab at the elevator and the shipping bins remain closed while FGIS inspects each sample.

When the inspectors certify that the sample meets the customer’s contract specifications, FGIS opens the shipping bins, allowing the elevator to load that wheat onto the vessel. If not, the wheat in the shipping bin is returned to the elevator to be re-blended.

Quality Assurance

FGIS saves sub-lot samples from each shipping bin for 90 days in case an issue comes up when the wheat arrives at its destination.

To give the buyer additional quality assurance, about 10 percent of all samples are sent to a national FGIS Board of Appeals and Review to be re-inspected for quality control monitoring.

Those inspections generate valuable data that customers can use to get even more value from their purchases of high-quality U.S. wheat. Your U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) representative can help you make good use of this information as you write your tenders.

In the U.S. wheat export system, grain companies move wheat from inland farms and elevators to deep water ports more efficiently and economically than any wheat supply system in the world.

In the U.S. wheat export system, grain companies move wheat from inland farms and elevators to deep water ports more efficiently and economically than any wheat supply system in the world.

It is very reassuring to wheat importers that U.S. grain handlers segregate wheat by class and quality, and maintain its wholesome character, while moving wheat from inland farms and elevators to deep water ports more efficiently and economically than any wheat supply system in the world.

Learn More

More information about the U.S. wheat export supply system is available from USW online or from your local representative, including an interactive map of the system, a section on “How to Buy U.S. Wheat” and other resources.




On the heels of a White House Executive Order on competition this month, a large group of agricultural shippers recently wrote to the U.S. Surface Transportation Board (STB) to advocate for several policy proposals in front of the board that can make a significant difference in increasing rail competition in transportation of wheat and other commodities.

The letter was written by a diverse grouping of agricultural organizations, including U.S. Wheat Associates (USW), that created an informal coalition, the Agricultural Transportation Working Group (ATWG), in 2003. The group meets regularly to discuss critical transportation policy issues that affect U.S. agriculture. The group also identifies policy priorities and suggests needed changes to help maintain U.S agriculture’s international competitiveness.

Elevator and train to illustrate rail competition story.

About 70% of U.S. wheat is transported by train from inland country elevators to domestic and export markets, so rail competition is important for the entire supply chain.

More Room for Negotiation Needed

With about 70% of U.S. wheat moving to domestic and export markets by rail, railroads provide an essential logistical function that neither farmers nor grain companies can perform on their own. Yet those shippers are often “captive” because they lack economic alternatives to a single railroad.

The letter specifically encouraged STB to enable “competitive switching” (see below for more information) and urged “the Board to finalize other regulations … to provide rail customers greater ability to negotiate prices and challenge unreasonable rates and fees.” The letter points out that “fees are increasingly becoming a larger source of revenue for railroads and expense for their customers.” Click here to read more about how rail rates affect U.S. wheat export basis.

The President’s Executive Order was particularly broad and focused on proposals to increase competition in many industries, with the transportation portion including rail competition and maritime initiatives,  stating that “robust competition is critical to preserving America’s role as the world’s leading economy … inaction has contributed to these problems, with workers, farmers, small businesses, and consumers paying the price.”

“Competition is critical to the health of the rail industry and the significant role rail serves in the larger economy, and this Executive Order will help focus attention on these important issues.” – Surface Transportation Board Chairman Martin J. Oberman

The Order explicitly states that agencies like the STB and Federal Maritime Commission (FMC) can influence the conditions of competition through their exercise of regulatory authority. In addition to the competitive switching rule, the STB has the latitude to propose or finalize other options such as bottleneck rate rules and Final Offer Rate Review – for which USW has advocated – both of which would start to tip the scales in favor of a level playing field for rail shippers.

Opposition Anticipated

While the rail industry will almost certainly oppose any changes to the current regulatory model that affects rail competition, executive pressure and political initiative may encourage the STB majority to act on these proposals (click here to read STB Chairman Martin J. Oberman’s statement on the President’s Executive Order). Many industry watchers are even speculating that the focus on increasing competition and attention on consolidation will factor into the STB’s consideration of the proposed Canadian National Railways purchase of Kansas City Southern Railroad – something the USW Wheat Transportation Working Group is closely watching.

In USW’s mission “to enhance wheat’s profitability for U.S. wheat producers and its value for their customers,” a potential solution may be found in the President’s directive if it indeed does rebalance the relationship between railroads and their customers.

By Michael Anderson, USW Market Analyst

“Competitive switching” is a policy proposal in which a rail customer such as an inland country grain elevator could seek bids for service from nearby competing railroads even if the customer is not located directly on the competing railroad’s track. It is designed to inject competition into what is otherwise a captive transportation market, where many rail customers, especially grain elevators, have direct access to only a single freight railroad, leaving them with little to no bargaining power over shipping rates. Freight rail reform advocates who have sought such policies for a long time are enthusiastically looking to the President’s “Promoting Competition in the American Economy” executive order to add momentum to the call for greater competition.


Grain companies serving Pacific Northwest (PNW), Gulf, Lakes and Atlantic ports overcome challenging logistics to efficiently deliver wheat that consistently meets contract specifications to buyers around the world. Rail rates, for example, make up a significant percentage of U.S. wheat export basis and, ultimately, the FOB price paid by importers.

Exporting grain companies draw from inland country elevators that play a vital role in the U.S. wheat export system. And, according to the National Grain and Feed Association (NGFA), which represents and provides services for country elevators and other related commercial businesses, having access to efficient, competitive rail transportation is crucial. In fact, NGFA notes that 72% of U.S. wheat moves to domestic and export markets by rail.

Base and Secondary Rail Markets

Dr. Frayne Olson, Crop Economist/Marketing Specialist with the North Dakota State University Extension, says the United States has a very strong network of reliable freight rail systems that move wheat and other grains from where it is produced to domestic and export locations. He suggests that most deliveries to export elevators in the Pacific Northwest (PNW) or the Western Gulf rely on 110-car shuttle trains dedicated to wheat or other grain deliveries. The total cost of shuttle train delivery includes a base tariff rate and, if needed, a secondary market.

Shuttle loading system to present rail rates background

A shuttle train is loaded with grain at an inland elevator in this image from a video lecture by Dr. Frayne Olson, North Dakota State University, produced for USW. Arrows indicate the rail engines and covered grain cars.

“The base rate does not change rapidly,” Dr. Olson said in a recently produced video lecture on grain transportation for U.S. Wheat Associates (USW). “With shuttle systems, the base rate reflects the use or leasing of a train for about a 12-month period by the exporting company.”

U.S. railroads are also allowed to apply a fuel surcharge per car.

The secondary market allows exporters to contract for unanticipated rail requirements by purchasing unused space in a rail car and move the grain to the export terminal. Because the secondary rail market correlates directly with the principles of supply and demand, it can be considerably more volatile than the base rate tariff.

The Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) of USDA notes that secondary rates are most often a small fraction of the full cost or rail shipments relative to the base tariff rate.

Total rail rates make up a significant percentage of U.S. wheat export basis. Each week, USW Market Analyst Michael Anderson polls export grain traders about changes in export basis. In their reports, the traders consider factors that directly affect basis including rail capacity’s effect on rates. Nearby futures prices and average basis are included in the USW Price Report to provide an estimate of weekly FOB prices for several classes and protein levels from PNW, Western Gulf and Lakes ports.

Current Rail Rates

Overall, current rail rates for shipping U.S. wheat are about equal to or slightly less than they were one year ago. In its July 15, 2021, “Grain Transportation Report,” AMS reported the following base rail tariffs, plus a fuel surcharge, per metric ton (MT) for shuttle trains:

Great Falls, Mont., to PNW Ports:                  $39.90

Wichita, Kan., to Western Gulf Ports:            $42.07

Grand Forks, N.D., to PNW:                            $56.37

Grand Forks to Western Gulf:                         $59.54

Colby, Kan., to PNW:                                        $63.35

NGFA points out that agricultural producers and shippers now are dependent upon only four U.S. Class 1 carriers to haul most grains and oilseeds by rail. Those four railroads typically originate more than 80 percent of such traffic, compared to only 53 percent in 1980.

USW map of Class 1 U.S. railroads to help demonstrate rail rates.

U.S. Class 1 railroad routes are shown in this image from USW’s interactive map of the U.S. Wheat Export Supply System.

Monitoring Rail Rates and Policies

Like NGFA, the U.S. wheat industry is closely watching the current proposal for control of Kansas City Southern Railroad by Canadian National Railway and a potential competitive offer by Canadian Pacific Railways. USW’s Wheat Transportation Working Group will weigh in on these proposals to the U.S. Surface Transportation Board (STB) with public comments.

In addition, USW has joined several other organizations, including NGFA, urging the STB to adjust rail regulations to ensure sufficient competition and, ultimately, the most efficiency and value for farmers, the grain trade and overseas wheat buyers. Anderson will report on that effort in the next Wheat Letter post July 22, 2021.


On March 21, 2021, Canadian Pacific (CP) Railways announced a $25 billion plan to merge with Kansas City Southern (KCS), calling it a “transformative” remake of the freight-rail industry. The proposed new railroad would be the first U.S.-Mexico-Canada-linked rail line.

To illustrate rail merger proposals

The proposed rail merger of Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern would create a new rail system linking Canada, the United States and Mexico. Map: Canadian Pacific.

Not to be outdone, Canadian National Railway (CN) began talks with KCS in late April, saying it could yield a “superior” rail merger proposal and offering $30 billion for KCS compared to CP’s $25 billion.

Wheat is Watching

The U.S. wheat industry is closely watching both proposals but has not taken a position in support of or opposition to either proposed merger. U.S. Wheat Associates (USW), along with a coalition of shippers, has asked the Surface Transportation Board (STB), which regulates U.S. rail service, to apply its most strict standard of “enhances competition” to both proposals.

Also in April, however, the STB granted a waiver to CP that exempted its proposal from that high standard established in 2001. That ruling effectively lowered CP’s burden for winning the deal. The STB defended its decision noting that because the combination of CP and KCS would be the smallest of the large North American railroads, it would “result in the fewest overlapping routes.”

A Dissent

However, one STB member, Robert Primus, dissented in part, saying, “Special treatment for this proposed merger between Class I [railroads] runs counter to the Board’s responsibility to review such major mergers and protect the public interest.”

While the STB waived CP’s proposal from that standard, it has not yet ruled on the CN proposal. However, CN’s effort to brand the merger as enhancing competition has received over 600 letters of support.

USW’s desire to see increased rail competition in these merger proposals is directly related to their potential effect on U.S. wheat export prices.

To show proposed rail routes

Alternative routes created by Canadian National’s proposed rail merger with Kansas City Southern. Map: U.S. Department of Transportation via Bloomberg.

Rail Rates Affect Sellers and Buyers

U.S. railroads are a crucial part of the most efficient grain supply system in the world. The rail system fulfills an essential logistical function that neither grain handlers nor farmers can perform on their own. Wheat must compete for limited rail capacity with other grains as well.

USW, however, has learned that since June 2014, the cost of wheat shipments has increased substantially, due at times to higher basic rates for shipping wheat and other rail pricing strategies. For Mexican wheat buyers who bring in more than 60% of their total U.S. imports directly by rail, rates have a significant, direct impact on their bottom-line costs.

As rail costs increase, grain handlers may try to recover these costs by offering higher grain prices to terminal or export elevators and, as some in the industry believe, by offering lower prices to farmers. As basis increases, overseas buyers must pay more for all classes of wheat, and that affects demand.

While it is unlikely these proposed rail mergers would make Canada more competitive in Mexico due to long shipping distances, Canada’s history of nationalism in rail policies is concerning as it favors only some shippers. It is also possible a merger would increase Canada’s competitiveness in the U.S. domestic market, while the Canadian industry continues benefitting from an archaic, government-mandated variety registration system that helps minimize any large-scale U.S. wheat imports north.

Next Steps

The KCS’s board of directors must next decide if they want to accept one of the rail merger proposals. In the meantime, the STB will review the proposed mergers.

In response to the impacts of increasing rail rates on our export competitiveness, USW formed a Wheat Transportation Working group in 2018. The group is currently working with researchers on scenarios that will help identify potentially positive or negative outcomes that could result from a merger. The STB is likely to seek public comments on the final rail merger proposals later in 2021 and the Wheat Transportation Working Group will weigh in on behalf of U.S. wheat farmers.

For more information:

By Michael Anderson, USW Market Analyst


A coalition of Pacific Northwest (PNW) agricultural and commercial organizations recently responded with serious concerns to a controversial dam breaching proposal that would tear out four dams on the Snake River.

The dam breaching proposal, presented by U.S. Representative Mike Simpson of Idaho, aims to restore fish populations on the river while compensating groups affected by removing the dams. However, in a letter to government officials, the coalition said the plan would decimate U.S. producers’ ability to move wheat and other products to overseas customers and be of questionable environmental benefit.

The National Association of Wheat Growers joined state wheat organizations in Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Montana in signing the letter.

No Dams, No Barges

U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) has shared stories about the sustainability and reliability of wheat transportation by barge. The Columbia and Snake Rivers are essential parts of a logistical system that moves more than half of all U.S. wheat exports every year to more than 20 Pacific Rim countries. Wheat loaded on the Snake River makes up 10% of all U.S. wheat exports.

Barge traffic on the Columbia-Snake River System is the most cost-efficient and sustainable connection between U.S. wheat farmers and their customers overseas. And more easily navigable, safe and efficient barge transportation depends on river locks at each of the targeted dams.

Uncertain Results

USW shares the opinion stated in the coalition letter that improving fish populations are important and admirable goals. Still, there is little certainty removing the dams will restore fish populations to a level that would satisfy environmental advocacy groups involved in litigation over the river’s management.

The river system’s current management strikes a balance between all river uses—providing renewable electricity, transportation, irrigation flood control, and recreation. The dam breaching proposal would eliminate nearly all these benefits of the river. It would also subject interior PNW communities to a wide range of environmental and economic impacts.

Barge Traffic Safe for Now

Fortunately, U.S. wheat importers should not worry that the dams are in imminent danger. Members of Congress have not yet written legislation on the dam breaching proposal and it has not attracted much political support.

Hopefully, the proactive and vocal nature of river stakeholders early in this process will highlight the shortcomings of the proposal’s fish recovery portion and the enormous costs for trade, the region and the U.S. Treasury.

By Dalton Henry, USW Vice President of Policy

Inland grain elevator with grain rail cars to help demonstrate rail rates.

By Claire Hutchins, U.S. Wheat Associates Market Analyst

Gulf and Pacific Northwest (PNW) hard red spring (HRS) and hard red winter (HRW) basis values have jumped significantly in the last month due to increased domestic secondary rail rates and limited export elevation capacity, both driven by stronger-than-expected U.S. agricultural export sales to China.

It is important for overseas wheat buyers to understand the potentially significant impact of price movement in the domestic secondary rail market on export prices.

U.S. railroads auction domestic freight in the “primary railcar auction market.” Grain shippers can meet their need for rail capacity by trading this freight among themselves in the secondary railcar auction market at prices above or below the primary tariff rate, depending on national supply and demand conditions. According to the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), the secondary railcar market evolved to enable rail movements of grain to be more responsive to market pressures, like increased commodity exports or reduced railcar availability.

This year, AMS data show the average secondary rate for shuttle trains to be delivered in October was up 36 percent between July 30 and Aug. 20 to $1,172/car, nearly three times greater than the previous 3-year average.

Over the same period, Gulf HRS 14.0 (12% moisture basis) export basis increased 16 percent to $2.20/bu, PNW HRS 14.0 export basis increased 21 percent to $2.00/bu. Gulf HRW 12.0 export basis increased 11 percent to $1.95/bu and PNW HRW 12.0 increased 24 percent to $2.55/bu.

According to U.S. grain traders, the unexpectedly swift pace of agricultural commodity exports to China and rail labor shortages due to COVID-19 furloughs are supporting secondary rates and, in turn, wheat export basis levels.

“If rail logistics through October, November and December run smoothly, we could see secondary rail rates plateau,” said one grain trader. “But if things go wrong in terms of weather or continued labor shortages, we could see more upside to secondary rail rates in the near future.”

Limited export elevation capacity out of the Gulf and PNW due to the swift uptick in Chinese demand for U.S. agricultural goods continues to add support to wheat export basis values.

“September and October are at capacity; we can’t add a lot more business for those months. If anyone were to sell anything for delivery in those periods, it would raise elevation costs substantially,” said another grain trader. Additionally, export elevators are going to charge more to elevate wheat in the next couple of months because they expect to store more corn and beans at that time of year. It is more complex and expensive for export elevators to handle multiple commodities at the same time, said a representative from the U.S. grain trade.

Soybeans. “A lot of customers are surprised by the fact that export capacity is filling up so quickly with soybeans,” said a U.S. grain trader. The reason, however, is no surprise: China’s dramatic increase in U.S. soybean purchases this year compared to previous years. According to USDA, China bought 17.0 million metric tons (MMT) of U.S. soybeans for delivery in the soybean marketing year 2019/20, which ended Aug. 31. That is 21 percent more than the 14.1 MMT China purchased for delivery in marketing year 2018/19.

Corn.  Export sales to China for marketing year 2019/20, at 2.24 MMT, are more than five times greater than the amount sold in 2018/19.

Wheat. It is no secret China has re-emerged as a buyer of U.S. wheat in a big way. According to USDA, as of Aug. 20, total U.S. wheat export sales to China total 1.22 MMT, for delivery in the current wheat marketing year. magnitudes greater than the 60,500 metric tons (MT) sold this time last year. China is currently the second largest market for U.S. wheat in marketing year 2020/21, which started June 1.

“If China wants to purchase more U.S. wheat for October, November and December deliveries, we could see export basis levels go higher in the near future,” said an industry contact.


Image shows grain rail cars by a country elevator to illustrate USW comments to the Surface Transportation Board.

By Claire Hutchins, USW Market Analyst   

U.S. railroads are a crucial part of the most efficient grain supply system in the world. The rail system fulfills an essential logistical function that neither grain handlers nor farmers can perform on their own.  

Yet rail rates and charges paid by wheat shippers make up a large portion of export basis and directly affect the price overseas buyers pay for U.S. wheat. Farmers and the grain companies who rely on domestic rail to ship wheat are also aware that rail rates have increased at a rapid pace at the same time that export competition has also increased 

U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) and many of its state wheat commission membersin 2017 formed a Transportation Working Group (TWG) to address issues of increasing wheat rail tariff rates and U.S. wheat’s competitive market position, especially compared to other commodities shipped from the same destinations to many export terminals.  

The Surface Transportation Board (STB) is a federal regulatory board that has broad economic oversight of U.S. railroads. In early July, the TWG met with STB commissioners to voice support for a possible procedure that would make it easier and more efficient for shippers to challenge unreasonable and uncompetitive rail rates.  

In the past year, the STB introduced the concept of a Final Offer Rate Review (FORR) that would help shippers in this effort. Over a 135day timeline proposed under FORR: a shipper could challenge the railroad’s rate; both the shipper and the railroad could provide evidence supporting their position on the rate; both parties could suggest alternative rail rates; and if the STB finds the railroad is market dominant and imposed unreasonable rates, relief could be offered to the shipper as the difference between the initial rate and the new, lower rate offered either by the shipper or the railroad.  

The USW TWG filed public comments to the STB in mid-August supporting the Board’s FORR procedure.  

The FORR method offers wheat shippers a new system to challenge unreasonable rail rates. The TWG believes the FORR method is necessary because while farmers have faced depressed farm gate prices, wheat rail tariff rates have increased continually over time at a significantly higher rate than the railroads’ variable cost to ship the wheat (see chart). Additionally, wheat rates are substantially higher than the rates faced by similar commodities shipped over the exact same routes (see chart) 

The TWG applauds the STB for proposing the FORR concept and believes it will help wheat shippers throughout the country challenge unreasonable rail rates which could help U.S. wheat reach overseas customers at more competitive prices.  

USW, state wheat commissions and the farmers we represent look to U.S. railroads as our vital partners in a mutually beneficial effort to increase the value of U.S. wheat to end users. We appreciate their consideration of how fair rail rates can help make U.S. wheat more competitive on the world market. 


By Michael Anderson, USW Assistant Director, USW West Coast Office

Each day during harvest season in the Pacific Northwest, the road to mid-Columbia Grain Company in The Dalles, Ore., is backed up by large grain trucks loaded with recently harvested wheat. A sample is taken from each load, then graded and tested for protein before being offloaded and elevated into segregated storage or directly onto a barge that will make its way down the Columbia River to export grain terminals. Wheat from other up-country elevators is also loaded into rail cars for the trip to port.

Downriver, storage is limited but variable orders must be filled quickly. So, what is being offloaded from up-country is segregated by class and protein, inspected to certify it will meet buyers’ specifications and re-loaded into bulk vessels.

Such logistics are complex, but it is happening all the time across the United States. It is a system that continues to be highly efficient at receiving, storing, sorting, blending and shipping large amounts of grain of uniform quality to a diverse international customer base. To read more about the systems that support U.S. grain handling, visit the National Grain and Feed Association website here.

The North American Export Grain Association (NAEGA) describes exporting grain as both a competitive and capital-intensive industry. On its website, NAEGA states that “since the margin of profit to be earned from moving a ton of grain can be quite small, exporters depend upon moving large volumes very quickly. They seek to achieve an economy of scale that lowers their average fixed costs per unit of volume handled, provides operating flexibility, increases bargaining power in chartering for shipping, and improves the services they can provide worldwide.”

Using trucks, rail and river barges, the U.S. grain handling system in marketing year 2018/19 moved about 56 percent of annual wheat exports through ports in Oregon and Washington State, about 31 percent through ports in Louisiana and the Texas Gulf, about 9 percent from the “interior,” mainly via direct rail from the Plains to Mexican buyers, and 4 percent through ports on the Great Lakes.

From the bookkeepers at country elevators to the longshoremen who load bulk ocean-going vessels, every person in our grain handling system is working hard to add value to every metric ton of wheat our overseas customers purchase. Even today, as the threat from COVID-19 continues, these men and women remain at work, helping to feed the world.

Read other blog posts in this series:
Research and Breeding
Farmers and State Wheat Commissions
Exporters, Inspectors and USW Overseas Offices


By Claire Hutchins, USW Market Analyst

Railroad rates and charges paid by customers who ship wheat and other grains make up a large portion of basis and have a direct effect on the price overseas buyers pay for U.S. wheat. Unfortunately, the cost of shipping wheat by domestic rail has been increasing at a rapid pace.

U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) and many of its state wheat commission members are spending more time investigating and commenting on the potentially adverse effects of increasing rail rates and separate charges on our overseas customers, shippers and even local farmers.

U.S. railroads are a crucial part of the most efficient grain supply system in the world. The rail system fulfills an essential logistical function that neither grain handlers nor farmers can perform on their own. Wheat must compete for limited rail capacity with other grains as well.

USW, however, has learned that since June 2014, the cost of wheat shipments has increased substantially, due at times to higher basic rates for shipping wheat and to added “demurrage” and “accessorial” (D&A) charges by Class 1 railroads (those with the largest systems). Demurrage charges occur when shippers do not receive, load or unload freight within a certain time period determined by the railroads. Accessorial charges are added to base transportation charges and can include demurrage, as well as costs to weigh rail cars, diversions from normal routes and other costs.

Recently, USW observed how agriculture is not the only industry negatively affected by these additional charges. USW joined more than 100 representatives across many sectors May 22 to 23, 2019, at a hearing held by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board (STB) to assess the fairness, reciprocity and efficiency of railroad D&A charges. The STB is a federal regulatory board that has broad economic oversight of U.S. railroads, trucking companies, water carriers and other transportation groups.

At the hearing, diverse stakeholder voices united under two common themes: D&A charges heavily favor Class 1 railroads and do little to improve overall service provided by railroad companies to shippers, receivers and intermediaries. Many shippers at the hearing said circumstances often prevent them from meeting what they consider strict railroad loading and unloading schedules, thus incurring the D&A charges. In some cases, stakeholders said they had to invest tens of millions of dollars in new infrastructure to accommodate railroad scheduling to avoid further demurrage costs.

In the case of wheat, as rail costs increase, the grain handlers may try to recover these costs by offering higher grain prices to terminal or export elevators and, some in the industry believe, by offering lower prices to farmers. As basis increases, overseas buyers must pay more for all classes of wheat out of the Gulf and the Pacific Northwest and that affects demand.

As rail costs increase, the grain handlers may try to recover these costs by offering higher grain prices to terminal or export elevators and, some in the industry believe, by offering lower prices to farmers.

Representatives from Class 1 railroads also attended the STB hearing and made the point that efficiency is good for all parties in the supply chain. They unilaterally agreed that D&A charges incentivize shippers to make more efficient loading and unloading decisions, which improves overall efficiency.

USW hopes the STB will carefully consider industry perspectives when assessing the fairness and efficiency of D&A charges because wheat producers and customers alike are adversely affected by increasingly high rail costs. USW believes lower rail costs could help U.S. wheat be even more competitive in a global marketing environment where only a small change in cost can make a big difference for farmers and their customers.