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.


By Stephanie Bryant-Erdmann, USW Market Analyst

Since the beginning of the calendar year, export cash prices for hard red winter (HRW) wheat prices have rallied an average 73 cents at the Gulf across all protein levels. However, export cash prices are made up of two components — wheat futures and export basis. Most of the export price rally matches the futures market, which climbed from $4.37 per bushel in January to $5.64 per bushel on May 25. However, U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) and the farmers it represents also face historically high rail rates that support the export basis.

The futures rally is based on two fundamental factors — drought in the U.S. HRW-growing area, which is shrinking the U.S. HRW supply, and concern about poor crop conditions around the world, which the market believes is increasing potential demand for U.S. HRW.

On May 10, USDA forecast global world wheat consumption to outpace global wheat production in 2018/19 for the first time since 2012/13 due to reduced production in Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. The growing demand for wheat around the world and the expectation of smaller Black Sea supplies are pushing up U.S. export prices.

As of May 31, the U.S. Drought Monitor reported that the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles and 75 percent of Kansas are still in a moderate to exceptional drought. The corresponding wheat condition ratings reflect the effects: USDA rated 48 percent, 63 percent, and 54 percent of HRW in poor or very poor condition, respectively, in the region.

The market also expects the drought to help increase new crop HRW protein levels (although the data to support that expectation is not yet available). This has caused protein premiums and discounts to erode. In the Gulf, the protein premium for 12.0 percent protein (12 percent moisture basis) HRW over 11.5 percent protein (12 percent moisture basis) fell from an average $23 per MT ($0.64 per bushel) in January to $8 per MT ($0.21 cents per bushel) year to date in May (See “HRW Export Basis and Rail Rates”). Similarly, the average protein premium for 11.5 percent protein over 11.0 percent protein (12 percent moisture basis) fell an average ($0.35 per bushel) during the same time frame.

The declining protein premiums for HRW partially offset the futures rally, and export cash prices for 12.0 percent protein and 11.5 percent protein (12 percent moisture basis) HRW in the Gulf remain below the respective 5-year averages.

However, while the weather fundamentals are dominating the news, there is also a third factor that is quietly playing a role in U.S. export prices — increased U.S. rail rates. According to USDA/Agricultural Marketing Service Grain Transportation Report data, year-to-date in 2018, the average cost of railcar transportation for wheat from Kansas to the Gulf is $45 per MT ($1.21 per bushel). That is the highest level since USDA began tracking rail rates in 2010. Rail rates for wheat will increase to a new record high this summer according to notices that went out to customers in March and April.

Rail rates are a key component of export basis, which also includes elevation, barge freight and labor costs. Yet the cost of transporting wheat is shared by the farmer and the overseas customer through country elevator basis levels and export basis levels. Consequently, higher rail rates act as both a ceiling for farm gate prices and simultaneously as a floor for export prices.

On the export basis side, this can most easily be seen in the export basis levels for ordinary or unspecified protein wheat. Year-to-date in 2018, ordinary protein HRW export basis has averaged $42 per MT ($1.15 per bushel), compared to $27 per MT ($0.74 per bushel) in 2017, when the average rail rate from Kansas to the Gulf (See “HRW Export Basis and Rail Rates”) was $43 per MT ($1.18 per bushel).

As customers ride out the market volatility that always occurs this time of year, they should keep in mind that U.S. export basis levels are supported by increased transportation costs, and the 2018/19 global stocks to use ratio without China is forecast at a tight 20 percent as noted in the USW May 17 Wheat Letter article “Chinese Wheat Stocks Mask Tight Stocks to Use Ratio.”