By David Mercer
STOCKLAND, Ill. — A no-frills concrete bridge on the edge of Stockland, Ill., represents a headache that the nation’s soybean farmers are trying to ease with a multimillion-dollar campaign and a little creative thinking.
The 50-feet concrete span and hundreds like it in soybean-growing states, including Wisconsin, cannot handle the weight of fully loaded grain trucks that will haul in an expected record harvest to grain elevators in fall. That means farmers who use the often small, obscure bridges will have to make more trips and spend more money.
Hauling soybeans to Stockland Grain Co. from the west means crossing the Stockland bridge. It’s restricted to 29 tons or 58,000 pounds. A fully loaded grain trucks weighs 80,000 pounds.
That probably will double the freight cost, said Sonny Metzinger, Stockland Grain owner.
Because farmers’ profits are dropping this year alongside crop prices, bridge-infrastructure needs have come into sharper focus. Most soybeans wind up on a rail car or barge to reach their destination, but most of them leave the farm in trucks that roll over small bridges.
Soybeans are one of the country’s largest and most valuable crops, netting $41.8 billion in 2013. They are grown in about 30 states for animal feed, food additives and other uses.
That money is of particular importance in rural counties in states such as Iowa and Illinois, the two largest producers. But those counties have small populations, and the bridges are lightly used outside of hauling crops to market, which makes them a tough sell to state and local policymakers.
National and state soybean trade groups are spending millions, $1.5 million in Illinois over three years, for example, to make their case and present solutions beyond asking government agencies in charge of the bridges to shell out money.
“The reality is we don’t have the funding available to upgrade every single mile of that infrastructure and every single one of those bridges,” said Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, a national soybean group based in Iowa that is working on the initiative.
Trade group officials say they believe a bridge’s importance shouldn’t be measured by how many vehicles use it, but rather by the value of the product they carry. Even at Friday’s depressed price of less than $11 a bushel, a full truckload of 900 bushels of soybeans would sell for close to $9,900.
But cutting the weight a farmer’s truck can carry by 25 percent per load might mean spending an extra $1,300 on fuel per 1,000 acres of crop, said Scott Irwin, a professor of agricultural marketing at the University of Illinois
The Illinois Soybean Association is picking a handful of bridges in each county on which to focus attention and resources, said to Scott Sigman, who works on transportation topics for the association.
Steenhoek is optimistic some of the farmers’ wishes can be granted by removing what he said may be unneeded weight limits. The Soy Transportation Coalition recently covered part of the Iowa Department of Transportation’s $35,000 cost for relatively new technology to check bridge capacities. Three bridges with weight limits were found to be strong enough for the department to lift those limits, Steenhoek said.
The bridge-testing technology, which Steenhoek said his group will help finance in other states, is an improvement on traditional inspections, said John Frauenhoffer, a veteran inspector and director of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ board of directors.
Wayne Humphries has avoided a bridge in southeast Iowa that couldn’t handle heavy farming equipment for 40 years. It soon will be replaced at a cost of $897,000, according to Louisa County Engineer Larry Roehl.
That bridge is only a tiny piece of the growing infrastructure problem in the U.S., Humphries said.
“I don’t quite understand where the American public thinks we’re going to be in 20 years if we don’t invest in infrastructure,” he said. “And I don’t know who they think is going to pay for it if they’re not going to pay for it themselves.”