Mississippi River scenes show hope and frustration over drought

In the fall, the downtown economic engine is fully deployed along the roads up and down the river, where flat, fertile land stretches out to the horizon. Mile after mile, against a backdrop of changing leaves, farmers harvest endless rows of golden soybeans and corn, their tractors shrouded in clouds of dust rising from the parched ground.

Huge grain-laden trucks rumble along narrow country roads, heading for the river and the grain elevators that buy the crops and ship them south to the Gulf of Mexico.

It’s not until you reach the river’s edge, at places like the Poinsett Rice & Grain Loading Facility, that the immediate impacts of the drought become startling and unmistakable.

“There’s probably close to $50 million here,” said Jeff Worsham, the port manager, as he stood high on a loading dock, gazing at the roughly 75 barges stranded in this small offshoot of the Mississippi.

Below, trucks loaded with soybeans from nearby farms continued to enter the grain elevator complex. But Worsham doesn’t have much room to put the crops he buys from farmers these days.

With restrictions on the number of barges that can travel on the river at a time, as well as limits on how much each can be loaded, the standoff isn’t expected to ease any time soon. And higher transportation costs are bound to reduce its bottom line.

Worsham’s dilemma in this corner of Mississippi is a microcosm of the struggle that plays out over and over again these days.

“I’ve been here 20 years and we’ve never had this problem,” Worsham said. “Normally high tide is what causes us pain.”

Two of the facility’s loading docks were out of service that day as the water level was too low for barge loading. Nearby, Worsham pointed to huge plastic grain bags, each filled with about 30,000 bushels — or about 30 truckloads — of soybeans. He can store crops there for a while, but each day they sit carries more risk.

“It’s the first time we’ve done this,” he said.

Worsham hopes this will be the last time, but he’s not so sure. The river appears to be experiencing more violent fluctuations today than long ago, he said.

“It rises quickly and it falls quickly. It makes it difficult because you don’t know what to expect,” Worsham said. “It’s always been unpredictable, but it just seems to be more extreme than before.”

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