Despite the pandemic, the barge shipping business has been running steadily on the Mississippi River. Along the Missouri River, it’s been business as usual, too. Some Midwest river terminals report a boost in traffic as ethanol plants closed or halted production due to the decrease in travel. 

BLENCOE, Iowa — After a lengthy absence, barges are returning to the upper stretch of the Missouri River, providing western Iowa farmers with a lower-cost option to access fertilizer and export grain.

Joined by Gov. Kim Reynolds, NEW Cooperative officials on Sept. 8 celebrated the start of work on an $11 million barge port that will be built about two miles west of the small Monona County town of Blencoe.

The NEW Cooperative Port of Blencoe will become the northernmost port on the nearly 760-mile span of the Missouri from St. Louis to Sioux City.

The co-op hopes to send its first barges loaded with soybeans down the river by late fall, weather permitting, general manager Dan Dix said.

By next spring, six to nine barges will arrive at the port, delivering fertilizers, aggregates and other products.

“When you talk about transportation costs, the most economically feasible is the waterways,” Reynolds said. “For our farmers to be able to utilize the Missouri River to export their goods internationally opens up a whole new world.”

With a few exceptions, barges have not traveled as far north as Blencoe in over 15 years. The once-thriving barge industry in Sioux City disappeared in the early 2000s after a combination of drought, economic recession, low commodity prices and political infighting over management of the river led shippers to turn to rail and trucks.

Fort Dodge-based NEW Cooperative, which has over 5,500 members and 39 locations throughout western Iowa, started planning its rural Monona County port two years ago, Dix said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the Missouri River, assured the co-op it would maintain a 9-foot-deep, 300-foot-wide channel, Dix said.

Because water navigation is more cost-effective than truck or rail, the co-op and other businesses using the port will be able to reduce their freight expenses. Each barge carries up to 300,000 bushels of grain. Plying the river with 72 barges per year eliminates the need for 80,000 semi-trailer trucks of grain, Dix said.

The port will have the capacity to load or unload up to six barges at a time.

A parade of state and local officials praised the massive project, which comes in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It sends a clear message to the world that Iowa is moving forward despite the challenges of today,” Reynolds said.

"I'm sure this new port will pay dividends for years to come," added Debi Durham, director of the Iowa Economic Development Authority and a former president of the Siouxland Chamber of Commerce.

Durham cited the potential for more economic growth through future development at the 30-acre site of the port, which will initially create a dozen jobs.

By Oct. 1, the co-op expects to begin construction at the site, which has already been cleared.

Driven primarily by uncertainty over future flows, Missouri River barge traffic declined significantly since the mid-1990s. Prior to that time, the Big Soo Terminal in Sioux City averaged around 160 barges per year. By 2004, no barges docked at the terminal, the first time that had happened since the Mighty Mo was straightened and deepened in the early 1960s.