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As an export market development organization, U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) represents the interests of U.S. wheat farmers in overseas markets. We are happy to compete fairly with wheat farmers in other countries on the basis of functional quality and value. Yet, working for these hard-working farm families also gives us great empathy for wheat farmers everywhere.

As the U.S. winter wheat harvest rapidly progresses, our thoughts include Ukrainian farmers as they try to harvest their wheat amid the unimaginable challenges of an armed invasion of their lands. There is growing evidence that Russian forces are deliberately targeting ripe winter wheat fields. The Washington Post also reported that in recent fighting in the east devastated a large flour mill and grain elevator.

Failed Strategy

Targeting wheat fields and other agricultural infrastructure is also an attempt to demoralize the Ukrainian people, but that will be a failed strategy.

CNN and its reporter Ivan Watson recently showed why frontline Ukrainian wheat farmers vow never to give up.

“Military drone footage exclusively obtained by CNN shows Russian artillery pounding wheat fields, burning the summer harvest charcoal black,” Watson reported, as wheat farmers race to protect their crops. “Despite the threats, these brave farmers still bring in their harvest only to face another obstacle. [They cannot] sell wheat because the Russian military has blockaded Ukraine’s ports, so there is no way for this to be sold except at an enormous loss.”

German media company Deutsche Welle (DW) recently reported that Ukraine’s infrastructure minister accused Russia of “terrorism,” saying Moscow is “holding people all over the world hostage” by blocking the country’s grain exports. Putin wants to force the international community “to take off some of the sanctions and then the grain can get out,” he said.

A Ukrainian wheat farmer talks to CNN reporter Ivan Watson

Never Give Up. In spite of Russian strikes on his wheat fields, this Ukrainian farmer told CNN his country, its soldiers and the world need his crops. CNN Image.

Why We Keep Working

As a combine operates in the background, CNN’s Watson asked a Ukrainian wheat farmer to explain why he continues his work.

“Our soldiers are fighting and dying to get rid of these occupiers,” the wheat farmer said. “We need to feed our country, these soldiers, and help the whole world with our food. That is why we will keep working.”

The world is fortunate to have wheat farmers like this man and other Ukrainian farmers willing to do everything it takes to help feed us all.

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On behalf of the U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) Transportation Working Group, we* appreciate the opportunity to provide comments on the draft Lower Snake River Dams Benefit Replacement Report.

The draft report raises serious concerns among U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) and its member states. The USW Transportation Working Group (TWG) questions many of the baseline assumptions argued in the draft report. The draft is incomplete because many of the key variables cannot be quantified. The Lower Snake River Dams (LSRD) provide a critical need that moves U.S.-grown wheat to high-value markets around the world. Breaching the dams would have serious economic consequences for producers and grain handlers. Removing the dams also runs counter to achieving climate-friendly goals.

Barging Benefits

USW strongly supports the sustainability and reliability of wheat transportation by barge. The Columbia Snake River System is an essential part of a logistical web that moves over half of all U.S. wheat exports to more than 20 Pacific Rim countries and encompasses some of the largest U.S. wheat buyers in the world. The Snake River moves more than 10% of all wheat that is exported from the United States. Because of the cost savings conveyed by barging grain and examples used in the draft report, we can conclude that farmers save considerably by using the waterway in place of rail or truck and are able to pass on savings to consumers.

Barge loading wheat to move through Lower Snake River Dams and down the Columbia River to export elevators.

The Lower Snake River Dams provide critical needs for wheat farmers, grain handlers, merchandisers, and millers. The draft report clearly outlines the benefits enjoyed by grain handlers, “barging is the lowest-cost option (per ton-mile) for wheat shipping, an additional benefit for Pacific Northwest producers, as they operate on narrow cost margins and use barging to maximize their profit per bushel.” Shifting the current volume of wheat and other grains moving via barge on the LSRD over to rail or truck is not a viable and straightforward solution as portions of the draft study imply. Rail and truck cost significantly more on a per bushel basis, and trucks have distance limitations.

Breaching Increases Transportation Costs

An excerpt from the draft report outlines the literal costs to farmers: “One of the most significant transportation impacts connected with LSRD breaching is shipping costs. Several studies cite shipping prices during scheduled lock outages for maintenance between December 2010 and March 2011 and found that during the outage, over 90% of the grain by volume was shipped by rail and that shippers experienced a nearly 40% increase in shipping and storage costs.” This example shows that railroads will use their power to raise rates when other alternatives, like the river system, are unavailable.

The Port of Lewiston is the most inland port in the U.S, Pacific Northwest. Its placement on the Snake River allows farmers in Idaho and other states to barge their wheat efficiently and affordably. The U.S. competes with six other primary wheat-exporting countries. According to the Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS), the United States is the third-largest wheat exporter in the world. However, for the U.S. to remain competitive with other wheat exporting nations, export prices must remain competitive. Inland transportation costs are a primary factor in determining the competitiveness of U.S. wheat. Using barges to ship grain is one of the most efficient and cost-effective ways that U.S. wheat farmers stay competitive.

Rail Cannot Make Up Difference

All wheat production zones in the U.S. would be impacted, not just those in close proximity to the Lower Snake River Dams system. The U.S. rail system has some severe issues with service and reliability, and in recent years, tariff costs to move wheat have steadily increased. Adding more volume to the system would raise costs for all farmers and lead to a decline in service for a significant portion of all U.S. wheat producers. This would directly impact U.S. wheat’s global competitiveness as an export market.

Transporting wheat by barge is an environmentally friendly alternative to rail and truck hauling. One four-barge tow can move as much grain as 144 rail cars or 538 semi-trucks. Removing the dams would not only remove clean hydroelectricity but would mandate more significant carbon emissions as grain handlers are forced to rely on railroads and semi-trucks for long-haul delivery to export facilities in Portland and elsewhere.

Map of the Columbia Snake River System from Pacific Northwest Waterways Association

Eight Steps Down. Lock and dam systems on the Columbia Snake River System allow barges to efficiently and safely navigate the 222-meter elevation change from Lewiston, Idaho, to export elevators as far west as Longview, Wash.

More Competition Not Less

The draft report provides no sincere considerations for alternative freight, and what suggestions it does make are unrealistic. While railroads and trucks compete with barge companies to move grain, farmers and grain handlers would be held captive without barges as an alternative.

USW supports the Columbia Snake River System and will continue to emphasize its importance in serving wheat buyers worldwide. Breaching of the dams on the Lower Snake River would have a devastating economic impact on wheat production and market competitiveness, not just in the Pacific Northwest Region, but nationally.

*This article represents public comments by the USW Transportation Working Group to the Lower Snake River Dams Benefit Replacement Report submitted July 11, 2022, by working group co-chairs Jim Peterson, Policy and Marketing Director, North Dakota Wheat Commission, and Charlie Vogel, Executive Director, Minnesota Wheat Research & Promotion Council.

 

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A draft report on what would be needed to replace the benefits of the four Lower Snake River dams and locks was released June 9, 2022, for public comment through July 11, 2022. The report, conducted on behalf of Sen. Patty Murray and Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington state, suggests that breaching these dams to prevent the extinction of native salmon and replacing the benefits of barging and hydropower could cost between $10.3 billion and $27.2 billion.

Pacific Northwest (PNW) agricultural and commercial organizations responded to the report with serious concerns. A coalition of Republican members of Congress also introduced legislation that would protect the dams, arguing their benefits are irreplaceable.

No Dams, No Barges

U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) strongly supports the sustainability and reliability of wheat transportation by barge. The Columbia Snake River System is an essential part 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 and barged on the Snake River makes up 10% of all U.S. wheat exports.

The Pacific Northwest Waterways Association (PNWA) questioned a number of baseline assumptions in the new report, including that the future value of the dams will decline and that all losses from dam breaching can be mitigated or compensated.

For example, PNWA Executive Director Heather Stebbings said in a news release that there are significant gaps in the report as it relates to understanding the reality of shifting wheat and other grains from barges to rail and trucks. This would require a massive investment in new infrastructure and likely increase wheat export basis with significant negative impact on regional farmers, the efficient Pacific Northwest export system and, ultimately, overseas wheat buyers.

Barge loading on Snake River

An estimated 10% of total annual U.S. wheat exports passes through the four locks and dams on the Lower Snake River between Lewiston, Idaho, and terminals like this one, to its confluence with the Columbia River and on to export elevators.

Serving Asia, Latin America

The Port of Lewiston on the Snake River, the most inland U.S. port, is uniquely positioned to source wheat from Idaho and other states. River terminals on the Lower Snake serve eastern Washington farmers. That wheat is barged on the Lower Snake River to the six major PNW export elevators serving Asian and Latin American wheat markets. All aspects of the river system are essential for transporting wheat from farm to market. However, barging is the most efficient, affordable, and environmentally friendly way to get that wheat to export locations. For context, one four-barge tow on this river system moves as much cargo as 144 rail cars or 538 semi-trucks.

Economic Value

This Columbia Snake River System transports four classes of U.S. wheat grown by dependable farmers in 11 states. In addition, some of that wheat and other crops for export markets are irrigated with water from the system. And the dams on the Columbia Snake River System generate 90% of the renewable electric power in the PNW.

Sean Ellis, representing the Idaho Farm Bureau, told the Capital Press its members “wholeheartedly” support ongoing efforts to improve salmon runs but continue to “adamantly” oppose dam breaching.

“There is no evidence to support the claim that breaching the dams would save the salmon but it’s quite clear that doing so would have a major negative effect on the region’s economy and put a lot of farmers out of business,” Ellis said.

Map of the Columbia Snake River System from Pacific Northwest Waterways Association

Eight Steps Down. Lock and dam systems on the Columbia Snake River System allow barges to efficiently and safely navigate the 222-meter elevation change from Lewiston, Idaho, to export elevators as far west as Longview, Wash.

“We continue to approach the question of breaching with open minds and without a predetermined decision,” Sen. Murray and Gov. Inslee said about their report. “In the coming weeks, we will carefully review and consider public input, tribal consultation, and other engagement from stakeholders before making any recommendations.”

A Necessary Link

The Columbia Snake River System and other major U.S. river systems truly connect the United States to its trading partners. The river system keeps U.S. wheat competitive by moving higher volumes more efficiently. USW, its state wheat commission members, wheat associations and supply chain stakeholders in the tri-state region of IdahoOregon and Washington all support the Columbia Snake River System and will work to see that it continues working for wheat buyers around the world.

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A recently released econometric study confirmed that two export market development programs administered by the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) benefit wheat farmers, their overseas customers and the general U.S. economy.

“Four studies since 2007 using various econometric models have all shown the same bottom line result – export market development programs work for American agricultural producers,” said Robbie Minnich, Chair of the Coalition to Promote U.S. Agricultural Exports and Senior Government Relations Representative with the National Cotton Council. “Without question, the economic benefits they return far exceed the investment made.”

Cover of USDA FAS Export Market Development yearbook for 2021.

Learn more about USDA export market development here.

U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) participates in the Market Access Program (MAP) and the Foreign Market Development (FMD) program on an annual basis. These programs are apportioned by law in the U.S. federal budget. They are public-private partnerships between USDA and organizations like USW and 17 state wheat commission members that help fund its activities. Across all the participating organizations, private contributions to the programs represented more than 70% of total funding in recent years.

Wheat Trade

Wheat is the most trade-dependent of the major food and feed crops grown in the United States. But individual farming operations cannot effectively market wheat overseas. The MAP and FMD programs help to encourage those customers to consider the various classes and qualities of U.S. wheat.

With funding from MAP, FMD and U.S. wheat farm families, experienced USW staff and consultants add exceptional value to all U.S. wheat class imports. USW also invests substantial funding to help overcome trade or technical barriers that would otherwise keep end-users from realizing the highest value and most revenue from using U.S. wheat.

“These export market development programs enable U.S. Wheat Associates to build a critical reserve of trust and goodwill with our overseas buyers, end-users and influential government officials, as well as key U.S. government agencies and officials,” said USW President Vince Peterson. “And there is a clear return on investment—for every dollar spent on export promotion, there is a return of $24.50 in additional net export revenue – and the return is even higher to the U.S. wheat supply system.”

U.S. Farm and Economic Returns

The new econometric study, conducted by IHS Markit and Texas A&M University agricultural economists Dr. Gary Williams and Dr. Oral Capps, showed export programs added an average of $9.6 billion per year to export value between 1977 and 2019. For farmers, livestock producers and dairy operators, the study showed MAP and FMD increased cash receipts by $12.2 billion per year. The study also indicated that these export market development programs added 225,800 new jobs across the entire U.S. economy.

“Our work indicated that MAP and FMD have accounted for 13.7% of all the revenue generated by U.S. agricultural exports between 1977 and 2019,” said Dr. Williams. “The additional export revenue bolsters the entire U.S agricultural sector and creates a multiplier effect throughout the U.S. economy.”

Infographic information noting 13.7% increase in revenue from export market development programs.

Export Market Development programs fund the trade and technical service that adds value to U.S. wheat imports and dozens of other U.S. agricultural export products.

The Coalition to Promote U.S. Agricultural Exports welcomed the results of the study. In letters sent on April 27, 2022, members of the Coalition, including USW and other organizations, asked U.S. House and Senate agricultural appropriations subcommittee leadership to maintain funding of at least $200 million for the Market Access Program (MAP) and $34.5 million for the Foreign Market Development (FMD) program in FY2023.

ATP Investment Also Analyzed

The study also analyzed the potential impact of the Agricultural Trade Promotion (ATP) program that the USDA established in 2019.

The ATP program provided $300 million to cooperating organizations, to which they contributed $90 million in cash, goods and services. The study’s analysis of future expected returns from those investments between 2019 and 2026 predicts that incremental funding for agricultural export market development will provide an excellent return.

The full export market development study, the Coalition letters to congressional appropriators, and more information about the value of U.S. agricultural exports to U.S. producers and their global customers are available at www.AgExportsCount.org.

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It is 3:00 on a brisk and overcast Tuesday afternoon, and the sun is already low in the sky. I am sitting in the galley of a tugboat — state of the art, I am told. The tugboat has all the amenities any crew would need with five staterooms, a kitchen, a washer and dryer, and even a weight room. There is some tension on board, with a hurry-up-and-wait attitude, when the phone finally rings. The deck mechanic answers and the barge we are waiting on is finally loaded with 1,500 metric tons (MT) of soft white wheat. The motor hums to life, and we start moving, slowly, toward the grain elevator. It is growing dark as two grain barges are tethered together, and we begin downriver from Lewiston, Ida., headed to Portland, Ore. It will be a two-and-a-half-day journey first down the Snake River, connecting to the Columbia River and finally to the Willamette River, to reach our Portland export elevator destinations, about 360 miles.

This river, in general, is very handsome, except at the rapid, where it is risking both life and property to pass.” – From the Journal of Sgt. Patrick Gass, a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Michael Anderson is picture front, left with the crew of the tugboat crew.

We follow the same route that Lewis and Clark took as the “Corps of Discovery” traveled west. The rivers were different in 1805, untamed by today’s intricate system of dams and locks. The eight dams that we will pass through have made it possible to harness the rivers into a major artery carrying U.S. wheat bound for export from farm to port.

The boat rocks side to side on my first night. It is comfortable, but the unfamiliar feeling makes it hard to settle in. Suddenly the boat lurches, and the light outside gets brighter. The first lock, Lower Granite, comes into view from the deck. Two spotlights illuminate our way as we creep up to the lock. Slowly we approach the brightly lit lock and are guided in along a long concrete wall. The force of the shallow water beneath us is the only thing that keeps the tug and barges moving forward. With inches to spare on either side, we have entered the lock. Behind the boat, a gate rises from underneath the water; it is about three feet above the surface when suddenly the gate stops rising, and our boat starts sinking below the surface. It is a rapid movement, but it continues for a long time. The watermark rises above us as we descend below the surface, protected by thick concrete walls. Finally, we stop moving. We are now 100 feet below the level at which we entered the lock. I walk to the front of the boat just in time to see the gates in front, towering above us, start to open, revealing the river ahead, and slowly we make our way out of the lock and down the river.

As a crew member aboard a tug, your day is not a simple “9-to-5.” With one crew on and one off, the day is broken into shifts of six hours each, from 12 to 6 and 6 to 12. The environment shared by the crew is family-like, cooking meals together and watching TV. Only the person driving the boat, the captain or the pilot, is constantly on watch. The deck mechanics jump into action when the boat enters a lock or when we pick up another barge, and this journey is a four-barge tow, meaning four barges being pushed by one tugboat.

From the bridge, the captain has a sweeping view on all sides, and plenty of sophisticated equipment helps him navigate even when we are surrounded by fog, which in the Pacific Northwest is common. Another lock is just ahead. The boat only moves about nine miles per hour. We fit into the lock with precision, again with just a foot on each side to separate us from the massive concrete walls. Unlike the lock last night, this lock is too short to fit the whole tow in at once, but that is nothing out of the ordinary for this crew. Once the barges are tethered in place, the captain skillfully maneuvers the tugboat like a game of Tetris into a tiny space giving the back of the boat just enough room for the lock keeper to close us in. Again, a large iron gate rises from the water behind us, and like an elevator, we start moving down inch by inch. In front is what looks like a massive garage door. The lock opens, revealing the next stretch of the river ahead.

The mechanics of the lock are simple: we are moving down river with the flow of the water, so when we enter a lock, it is full of water. The lock seals behind us, and a valve is released to allow the water to rush out of the lock. The tow itself is being moved to the same level as the river we are moving down. Once the tow is at the same level as the water outside the lock, the valve is closed, and we wait for the massive concrete door ahead of us to open so the tow can move out. It is a similar procedure for ships going upriver against the flow, but instead of the valve releasing water, the valve fills the lock. It takes about 30 minutes to pass through each lock.

The Columbia Snake River System is a superhighway for moving wheat and other agricultural products from farm to market. The barges and rail lines that run on both banks of the Columbia River carry more than 55% of all U.S. wheat bound for export each year. Barges are the most efficient way to move large volumes of grain, making the river system a cost-effective and “green” logistical option. The Army Corps of Engineers maintains the lock system; its history goes back to the 1930s when President Franklin Roosevelt personally inaugurated Bonneville, the first of the eight dams and locks east of Portland.

After about 60 hours on board the tugboat, we arrive in Vancouver, Wash., on the north bank of the Columbia River. We drop off two barges at an export elevator and proceed west again, up the north-flowing Willamette River that bisects Portland. It is my third river in a week, and we are taking the last barge to an export elevator just across the river from the U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) West Coast Office. There is a vessel at berth waiting for the wheat we carry. The crew drops the barge, and me, at the elevator. I walk up a set of metal stairs connected to a hoist and hop off, touching land for the first time since Tuesday. I walk across the river on Portland’s Steel Bridge, under which the wheat from our tow will pass on its way overseas, to my office.A tugboat pushes a grain barges down the Snake River on its way from Lewiston, Idaho to Portland, Ore.

By Michael Anderson, USW Market Analyst

This story was originally published on October 21, 2019.

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U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) joined other major shipping groups this week in calling on the U.S. Surface Transportation Board (STB) to adopt policies that have the potential to lower costs and improve service for wheat rail shippers and their customers. The policy proposal, commonly referred to as “reciprocal switching,” has been under the STB’s consideration for some time.

Reciprocal switching seeks to provide rail shippers such as grain elevators who are commonly only served by one railroad access to ship on other railroads, provided they are located within a reasonable switching distance. The desired effect is the creation of competition between railroads, where previously there was none. That competition has the potential to lower costs for USW customers around the world.

What is Reciprocal Switching?

The STB defines reciprocal switching (sometimes referred to as competitive access) as follows: Under reciprocal switching, an incumbent carrier transports a shipper’s traffic to an interchange point, where it switches the rail cars over to the competing carrier. The competing carrier pays the incumbent carrier a switching fee for bringing or taking the cars from the shipper’s facility to the interchange point, or vice versa. The competing carrier’s total rate to the shipper incorporates the switching fee. Reciprocal switching thus enables a competing carrier to offer its own single-line rate to compete with the incumbent carrier’s single-line rate, even if the competing carrier’s lines do not physically reach a shipper’s facility.

Freight Waves, an online publication, defines this concept in simpler terms: reciprocal switching occurs when a shipper has access to one freight railroad but wants access to a nearby competing freight railroad to cultivate a competitive pricing environment. A shipper can get that access at an interchange between the two railroads.

An executive order by President Biden encouraged the STB  to “promote competition and economic opportunity,” and specifically to encourage reciprocal switching.

Seal of the Surface Transportation Board

The Surface Transportation Board is an independent federal agency charged with the economic regulation of various modes of surface transportation, primarily freight rail. STB held a hearing on proposed reciprocal switching regulations March 15 to 16, 2022, 

What USW Advocates

Except for the Pacific Northwest, U.S. wheat production is not close to river transportation, and export facilities are too far away to rely on trucking. As a result, railroads play a key role in the export supply system. Over the last decade, rail rates have increased exponentially, and rates to ship wheat are higher than for other commodities with similar handling characteristics.

USW’s comments filed with the STB noted those higher rates between 22% and 39% for wheat movements compared to corn in four major regions. A June 2017 USDA Agricultural Marketing Service study corroborated these results, finding no underlying cause driving the increases in wheat rates. These premiums relative to other commodities demonstrate the current market power of U.S. railroads and the lack of competition afforded to wheat shippers.

USW also encouraged the STB to consider other relevant factors as it considers a new policy, such as: (1) whether the arrangement would further the rail transportation policies in 49 U.S.C. § 10101; (2) the efficiency of the proposed route; (3) whether the arrangement would allow access to new markets; (4) the impacts, if any, of the arrangement on capital investment, quality of service, and employees; (5) the amount of traffic that would be moved under the arrangement; and (6) the impact, if any, of the arrangement on the rail transportation network.

U.S. Wheat Competitiveness

Reciprocal switching has existed in Canada for many years, called “interswitching.” The situation there makes a compelling comparison to the United States because the spring wheat and durum growing regions are similarly positioned in the country’s interior. And the shipping distances to export facilities are nearly identical. However, despite the similarities, work collected by one of USW’s member state wheat commissions showed comparable origin-to-export point rail moves in Canada were 30% less than similar U.S. moves at the time.

Differing government rail policies (including more favorable terms for reciprocal switching) are one of the few significant differences in market position between the two countries. USW also realizes that the competitive access benefits Canadian farmers enjoy will make the proposed merger of Canada’s CP railroad with the KCS more advantageous for Canadian growers – if the STB does not apply its standard to enhance competition.

More Efficient Competition

USW believes that implementing reciprocal switching will make the rail system more efficient. We hope it will compel the railroads to provide better service and be more prepared by introducing more competition into the rail industry.

By Michael Anderson, USW Market Analyst 

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The Columbia Snake River System is the network of federal dams and locks on the Columbia River and connected water bodies, including the Snake River. This system enables grain barges to carry wheat 360 miles from Lewiston, Idaho, to export elevators as far west as Longview, Wash.

In marketing years 2019/20 and 2020/21, more than 55% of all U.S. wheat exports* moved through the system by barge or rail. Of the more than 15.0 million metric tons (MMT) of U.S. wheat exported from Pacific Northwest (PNW) export elevators each of those years, an estimated 4.6 MMT arrived by barge.

In addition, an estimated 10% of total annual U.S. wheat exports each year passes through the four locks and dams on the Snake River between Lewiston, the most inland port in the nation, and its confluence with the Columbia River.

Chart shows the amount of U.S. wheat by class that is exported through the Columbia Snake River System

Four Classes of Wheat are exported from PNW export elevators after arriving through the Columbia Snake River System by barge and rail. Source: Federal Grain Inspection Service. 

Grain Superhighway

In October 2019, U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) Market Analyst Michael Anderson shared his experience aboard a four-tow barge moving wheat from Lewiston to western export elevators on the deep-water Columbia River. Eight locks on the system allow barges to safely navigate the nearly 222-meter drop in elevation over that distance.

“The Columbia Snake River System is a superhighway of sorts for moving wheat and other agricultural products from farm to market,” Anderson said. “The ability to move such a large volume of grain efficiently makes the river system a very cost-effective and “green” logistical option. The Army Corps of Engineers maintains the lock system. And its history goes back to the 1930s when President Franklin Roosevelt personally inaugurated Bonneville, the first of the eight dams and locks east of Portland.”

Barge loading on Snake River

From Way Up River. Wheat is loaded onto a barge tow on the Snake River, the eastern segment of the Columbia Snake River System, near the start of its journey to export.

Earlier in 2019, Anderson noted why barging represents an essential part of the Pacific Northwest (PNW) wheat export supply system, including rail and trucking.

Barge Efficiency

“The rivers can move more volume at once, with greater fuel efficiency,” he wrote. “One barge can carry the same amount of wheat as 35 rail cars or 134 trucks. A barge tow can carry more than one 100-unit train or 538 trucks. And one barge can move a ton of wheat 647 miles per gallon while a truck can only move a ton of wheat 145 miles per gallon.”

The Pacific Northwest Waterways Association (PNWA) also reports that barging is a very safe way to move cargo, with fewer injuries, fatalities and accidental spills than other transportation options.

Economic Value

This system transports four classes of U.S. wheat grown by dependable farmers in 11 states. In addition, some of that wheat and other crops for export markets are irrigated with water from the system. And the dams on the Columbia Snake River System generate 90% of the renewable electric power in the PNW.

Map of the Columbia Snake River System from Pacific Northwest Waterways Association

Eight Steps Down. Lock and dam systems on the Columbia Snake River System allow barges to efficiently and safely navigate the 222-meter elevation change from Lewiston, Idaho, to export elevators as far west as Longview, Wash.

A Necessary Link

The Columbia Snake River System and other major U.S. river systems truly connect the United States to its trading partners. The river system keeps U.S. wheat competitive by moving higher volumes more efficiently. USW, its state wheat commission members, wheat associations and supply chain stakeholders in the tri-state region of Idaho, Oregon and Washington all support the Columbia Snake River System and will work to see that it continues working for wheat buyers around the world.

* Source: Federal Grain Inspection Service

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In 2021, the Canadian Pacific Railroad (CP) announced plans to purchase the Kansas City Southern Railroad (KCS). After a few sidetracks, the proposed transaction is now under final review by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board (STB) to determine whether the two Class I railroads can merge. If successful, the new system will become the first tri-national railroad in North America.

On Feb. 22, U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) filed comments with the STB, stating opposition to the rail merger as “inconsistent with the public interest.” USW also suggested that, should the merger proceed, the STB should impose certain conditions “to eliminate the adverse impacts this transaction will have on wheat shippers that are large rail shippers in the United States.”

Wheat Depends on Rail

Farmers export approximately 50% of their wheat crop each year. As such, U.S. farmers depend on the railroads to provide reliable and affordable access to export markets. Wheat farmers rely on the railroads in large part because of location. A significant volume of exportable wheat is grown in the Plains stretching from Montana to Texas and the Pacific Northwest (PNW). Rail transportation in the PNW is supported by regional river access to ports. Shippers in the Plains states are captive to rail freight through their distance from any genuine alternative.

In its comments to the Surface Transportation Board, USW noted that the market power held by the Class I railroads* has serious implications for U.S. wheat’s competitiveness compared to other major exporters. Rail rates over the last decade have increased exponentially, and rates for wheat are higher than rates for other commodities despite similar handling characteristics.

Where combination is possible, competition is impossible.” – George Stephenson, English Civil and Mechanical Engineer, known as “The Father of Railroads.”

Canadian Rail Advantages

The proposed transaction is especially relevant to U.S. wheat farmers as their Canadian competitors enjoy government protections that shippers in the United States do not. For example, the Canadian government enforces a Maximum Revenue Entitlement (MRE) on grain transportation to port facilities. This allows Canadian exporters to undercut U.S. exporters through rates set by statute instead of the market. During times of rail congestion, Canadian grain shippers have successfully lobbied their government to prioritize grain shipments over other sectors and have access to policies such as final offer rate arbitration and competitive switching. USW told the Surface Transportation Board if the merger would extend such treatment to the expanded CP line, Canadian shippers would enjoy an advantage that U.S. shippers under current conditions cannot.

The current KCS rail system also provides a direct link to the largest U.S. wheat importing customer, Mexico. Combining the two proposed rail lines will likely increase traffic and congestion on the combined network. In addition, nearly all Class I railroads have adopted a practice known as Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR). USW suggested that practice actually created poorer service and higher rates for rail shippers over the last five years.

Map of the U.S. showing the rail system created by the Canadian Pacific Railroad purchase of Kansas City Southern Railroad

If approved by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, the purchase of Kansas City Southern by Canadian Pacific Railroad would create the first tri-national railroad in North America.

Long History of Seeking Fairness

Arguments about rail competition today would not be unfamiliar across past generations of wheat farmers. Railroads have had a strong hand for a long time. During the industrial age, business interests sparred with the government over how to manage the expanding railroads.

The Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 was the first time Congress stepped in to regulate the railroads with “just and reasonable rate structures.” The railroad industry looks very different today. In 1980, the Staggers Rail Act made big changes to rail regulations. Infrastructure in the U.S. changed significantly in the decades between the two acts, necessitating changes to railroad oversight. Regulatory bodies meant to provide supervision have also changed. The Interstate Commerce Commission was abolished in 1996 and replaced with the Surface Transportation Board.

Enhancing Service

The STB must now answer a question it posed to railroads at the start of the 21st Century: “how to improve profitability through enhancing the service provided to their (railroads) customers.” Last summer, the Biden Administration directed the Surface Transportation Board to “promote competition and economic opportunity and to resist monopolization.”

In its comments filed this week, USW encouraged the STB to uphold the values of competition both for the wider railroad industry and in its oversight of “an economically sound and competitive rail transportation system.”

*There are currently seven Class 1 freight railroads in the U.S., a distinction defined by the railroads’ market capitalization.

By Michael Anderson, USW Market Analyst

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The world’s wheat buyers have heard the claim that dependable U.S. farmers produce “the world’s most reliable choice.” U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) and the farmers we represent believe in that claim because so many customers rely on several classes of U.S. wheat to meet their specific end-use and quality needs and because importing U.S. wheat carries less risk.

The situation the world’s wheat buyers see today is uncertain. The invasion of Ukraine has disrupted already stressed exportable supplies. Market volatility is the result.

Fortunately, overseas customers know they can depend on the integrity of the U.S. supply chain, the quality of U.S. wheat and our unmatched reliability as a supplier. Here is why U.S. wheat remains the world’s most reliable choice.

The U.S. “Wheat Store” is Always Open

U.S. farmers overcome significant risk every year to meet domestic wheat demand and still provide half their crop for export markets. Farmers and commercial warehouses can store and efficiently transport wheat in top condition to meet overseas demand when needed and throughout the marketing year.

Prices are Transparent and Honored

U.S. wheat export prices are discovered openly through futures exchanges and basis costs and are always available to customers. Private exporters use risk management tools to honor sales contract prices often made months in advance of vessel loading.

Quality is Assured

USW publishes weekly reports during harvest that summarize initial wheat quality findings. USW works with several organizations and laboratories to analyze hundreds of harvest and export wheat samples for all six U.S. wheat classes and publishes all results in the annual Crop Quality Report. Our staff, farmers and industry experts then travel the world to present the results to our customers and end-users. Those customers know U.S. wheat will meet their specifications because the supply chain follows uniform grain segregation and inspection procedures.

Photo shows an FGIS inspector and wheat kernels demonstrating another reason why U.S. wheat is the world's most reliable choice.

The Federal Grain Inspection Service (FGIS) independently inspects wheat at vessel loading to certify that the quality loaded matches the quality stated in the customer’s contract. Those inspections yield valuable data down to the sub-lot level of 1,000 to 2,000 metric tons that customers can use, with assistance from USW, to get the most value from their tenders.

The Federal Grain Inspection Service (FGIS) independently inspects wheat at vessel loading to certify that the quality loaded matches the quality stated in the customer’s contract. Those inspections yield valuable data down to the sub-lot level of 1,000 to 2,000 metric tons that customers can use, with assistance from USW, to get the most value from their tenders.

Direct Government Export Intervention is Banned

The world’s most reliable choice is protected by several U.S. federal laws that assure the sanctity of all export contracts. The only exception is a declared national emergency. Export tariffs are forbidden in the U.S. Constitution, fully adhering to World Trade Organization disciplines, and U.S. policy prevents using food as a weapon.

Buyers Receive Unmatched Trade Service and Technical Support

With funding from dependable U.S. wheat farm families and USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service, experienced USW staff and consultants add exceptional value to all U.S. wheat class imports.

Photo from a flour mill showing technical service that support U.S. wheat as the world's most reliable choice.

Technical Support and trade service from U.S. Wheat Associates adds value to imported U.S. milling wheat, helping make it the world’s most reliable choice.

Fostering Trade

USW invests substantial funding from farmers and federal programs to help overcome trade or technical barriers that would otherwise keep end-users from realizing the highest value and most revenue from using U.S. wheat.

The U.S. wheat industry is proud of its position as the world’s most reliable choice. All of us who participate in the industry believe that it contributes to world food security and economic stability, and work to maintain a transparent and open market to sustain that valued reputation.

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The first of its kind interactive wheat export supply system map that U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) introduced in 2020 is a helpful planning tool for U.S. wheat customers, our staff, and others. USW produced the map with Heartland GIS using USDA Foreign Agricultural Service Agricultural Trade Promotion program funds. The “USW Wheat Export Supply System” map is posted here on the USW website.

“There are six distinct wheat classes grown across many states and delivered by many different routes. So the U.S. wheat supply chain truly is driven by geography,” said USW Vice President of Overseas Operations Mike Spier. “The wheat export supply system map provides a geographical information system. That helps USW representatives show the world’s wheat buyers where the wheat they want is grown and transported to the export elevator.”

“Assisting overseas customers is a critical service that helps add value to U.S. wheat,” said USW Vice President of Communications Steve Mercer. “This wheat export supply system map is unique, and a practical addition to the trade service our representatives conduct around the world.”

Interactive export supply system map to help when buying U.S. wheat

Click on the map to use this tool.

 

The map includes a selection tool that allows the viewer to identify, in any combination, U.S. wheat production by class, wheat shuttle loading terminals, Class 1 U.S. rail lines and spurs, wheat terminals on major rivers, and export elevator locations.

“Working with U.S. Wheat Associates and its state wheat commissions, we used data from a lot of sources, including satellite imagery, to identify wheat planted area data,” said Todd Tucky, Owner and Senior Consultant of Heartland GIS. “I believe this is the most accurate representation ever developed of where individual U.S. wheat classes are produced along with the parts of the export system.”