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New Orleans
Tuesday, January 6, 1998

This morning the weather was much more agreeable and included a little sun and a lot less rain than yesterday. We spent most of the day at the Cargill Corporation's Terre Haute grain terminal located just outside of New Orleans.

Cargill exports grain from the interior of the United States to a variety of international ports. The Mississippi River is a critical part of that process. We toured the elevator docks and learned how important the Mississippi River is to the grain industry, and the challenges of river navigation.

The grain primarily comes from the farms in the Midwest and is transported by truck and train to the riverbanks where it is transferred to barges. An average barge can hold as much as 55,000 bushels of grain. Cargill's facility unloads approximately 4,000 barges and loads over 300 ships a year from this location alone. This unique facility can transfer an average farmer's yearly production from barge to sea vessel in less than an hour.

Similar to Cargill's Terre Haute operation, nine other major grain facilities are located along the river from Baton Rouge to the river's mouth. It is estimated that together, these facilities are responsible for shipping over half of the grain exported out of the United States each year.

The cheapest and most efficient method of grain transportation is the river. Companies rely on the benefits of the river, but they also suffer the consequences of its temperamental nature. When the water levels rise, conditions make it very difficult to secure ships along the docks. Barges can sometimes break away and crash into riverbanks and boats as they float down the river unattended.

When the water levels are too low, new problems develop. For instance, sea vessels cannot pull up to the docks to be loaded. This upsets the carefully synchronized schedules of the river transporters and creates a loss of production time and money. Fixing the problem is no small task. Silt that piles up around the dock due to the weakened currents must be dredged from the riverbed. Cargill estimates that when the water level is extremely low, workers might dredge up enough silt to fill close to 4,000 dump trucks.

For the river pilots that guide the sea vessels up the Mississippi River, both high and low waters can create navigational perils. Though the sea captain is always in control of the vessel, the captain relies solely on three special kinds of river pilots to navigate the ever-changing Mississippi River.

The depth of the river at the mouth is maintained at a minimum of 45 feet and can be extremely difficult to navigate. Just before a sea vessel enters the Gulf, the first river pilot, called a bar pilot, is taxied out on a small ship to help guide the vessel through the mouth of the river. Bar pilots steer the ship through the shallow waters and sand bars.

Once the ship has safely passed through the mouth of the river, a second pilot takes over and navigates the vessel up through the channel to New Orleans. The channel near the New Orlean's port is a tricky spot, requiring the expertise of an experienced river pilot. It is difficult to maneuver due to its crescent-like or curved shape and the fast current. The river pilot has to keep the boat moving at a rate of speed that is faster than the current in order to navigate the sharp turn. The channel here is also very deep, reaching down 200 feet.

The last pilot to guide the ship is the harbor pilot. This pilot navigates the ship from the port of New Orleans to its destined loading dock, such as the one we toured today.

How many train loads does it take to fill a barge?

Cargill Corporation's Terra Haute grain
Unloading grain.

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