How Illinois' Transportation Infrastructure Impacts Exports

By Jill Parrent | ISA Communications Coordinator

Illinois is the leading soybean producing state nationwide with about two-thirds of the soybeans grown in the state exported around the world. These soybeans must have a way of leaving the state, with rivers and trains playing a large role. Illinois is fortunate to have rivers, allowing farmers to expedite soybeans to other countries which is an economical advantage for Illinois farmers.

About 50% of Illinois soybeans are exported by way of the Gulf of Mexico. They take a trip down the Mississippi and Illinois rivers to New Orleans where they are then sent to countries around the globe. Andrew Larson, Illinois Soybean Association Director of Public Policy & Market Development explains, “New Orleans is known as being a large historical trading port for exports around the world, whether they go west to Asia through the Panama Canal or east to Europe and Africa. New Orleans is unique because of its ability to send vessels either way. This allows Illinois to have the advantage of sending soybeans worldwide quickly.”

Railcar shipping containers are an asset to farmers being able to send quick orders overseas, a logistical benefit as a backhaul for Asian buyers. Container shipping enables buyers to purchase smaller quantities to arrive more quickly. While containers may be an exceptional fit for delivering in smaller amounts, barges are able to hold significantly more soybeans, meeting the demand of a large number of customers in a shorter timeframe.

Barges have the ability to hold 52,000 bushels of agricultural products, allowing them to move more soybeans than containers, Larson states. While containers can arrive to buyers quickly, barges can move large loads down the Mississippi and Illinois rivers to their ultimate destination. The advantages come down to cost and constancy.  Illinois farmers have rivers at their fingertips, enabling them to be able to travel downriver at a less expensive price versus other states.

It can take less than two weeks for soybeans to arrive at export terminals after they leave the soybean pod. Their journey begins right as they are combined in the field. They are then often taken two ways - to an elevator or straight to a waterway. The soybeans are then loaded onto barges to make their way south. When leaving Peoria on the Illinois river, there are only two locks that barges must go through on their way to New Orleans. The La Grange Lock and Dam is at the bottom of the Illinois system, meaning it is the last lock before the Gulf of Mexico. When loading further north, barges must go through four to five locks, causing a delay in the soybeans reaching their destination.

In the summer of 2020, improvements began for waterway infrastructure for rivers in Illinois. While this project is expected to take years, the over 100-year-old system requires improvements for the future by replacing crumbling parts of infrastructure. The Water Resources Development Act of 2020 (WRDA) was passed in late December 2020, establishing funding for the inland waterways to create 1200-foot chambers, doubling the size of the current 600-foot chambers. Legislation will help communities move forward with projects critical for flood control, navigation, ports, locks, and dams and other water resource infrastructure. With these improvements, 15 barges will be able to fit inside of a chamber at one time, increasing speed for soybeans to reach their final destination. Larson emphasizes that these 15 barges equivalate to two full unit trains, 216 railcars, or 1,050 grain trucks.

Waterways are an intricate part of moving soybeans across the globe. Illinois farmers have the ability to move their harvest quicker than other states with the rivers so near to their farms, while enabling them to meet demand and increase profits. Farmers in Illinois no doubt have an optimistic scenario to taking their soybeans to market.