Highs and Lows on the Big Muddy

In light of this spring’s flooding on the Mississippi River, last year’s drought—the worst in half a century—seems a distant memory. Yet, all these ups and downs got us thinking just how critical the river is to agriculture.

By Amy Bickers

Consider these numbers: According to the Mississippi River Resource Page, 60% of grain exported from the U.S. is shipped through the river’s ports in Louisiana; plus, the river basin’s farmland and related agribusiness industry produce 92% of the nation’s agricultural exports, 78% of the world’s exports in feed grains and soybeans and most of the livestock and hogs produced nationally. Much of those products also travel on the river.

In order to move goods up and down the Mississippi, the Army Corps of Engineers maintains the shipping channel from Baton Rouge to Minneapolis. Yet, when traffic gets stopped—as it did last fall due to drought and this spring because high water caused more than 100 barges to break free from their moorings—commerce in the U.S. is serverely impacted. Agriculture is among the industries hit the hardest.

For instance, consider that farmers along the 200-mile section of the river shut down last fall had to pay a dollar more to ship each crop bushel as compared to farmers downstream, where river levels were higher. Because barges might bottom out along the dangerously shallow waterway, loads had to be lighter. Lighter loads meant more trips, more fuel and higher prices.

When there’s a disruption to river traffic—whether from low or high water—the impact ripples throughout the economy. As many as 20,000 jobs can be affected, impacting $130 million in wages, as well as businesses that ship products such as crude oil, coal, petroleum and agricultural goods. It’s just another example of how we’re subject to Mother Nature’s fickle ways.

Rollin’ on the River: The Mighty Mississippi at a Glance


Length: It’s difficult to pinpoint since the river channel is constantly changing, but the U.S. Geological Survey says 2,300 miles (3,705 kilometers).

Depth: At its headwaters, less than 3 feet. The deepest section—200 feet—is between Governor Nicholls Wharf and Algiers Point in New Orleans.

Volume: At Lake Itasca, Minn., average flow rate is 6 cubic feet per second. At New Orleans, flow rate is 600,000 cubic feet per second. There are 7.489 gallons of water in a cubic foot.

Speed: At headwaters, surface speed of the water is near 1.2 mph; at New Orleans, 3 mph. A raindrop falling in Lake Itasca would arrive at the Gulf of Mexico in about 90 days.

Commerce: Sixty percent of all grain exported from the U.S. is shipped via the Mississippi River through the Port of New Orleans and the Port of South Louisiana.

Wildlife: At least 260 species of fish— 25% of all fish species in North America—and  145 species of amphibians and reptiles inhabit the Mississippi.