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Bridges key piece to toting big soybean harvest
Stockland, Ill. • A no-frills concrete bridge on the edge of Stockland, Illinois, represents just the kind of headache the nation's soybean farmers hope a multimillion-dollar campaign and a little creative thinking will cure.
The 50-feet concrete span and hundreds like it in soybean-growing states can't handle the weight of fully loaded grain trucks that'll be bringing an expected record harvest to grain elevators this fall. That means those 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.
"Basically, it's probably doubling the freight (cost)," Stockland Grain owner Sonny Metzinger said from his business about 100 miles south of Chicago.
Since 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 ultimate destination, but just about all of them leave the farm in trucks that roll over small bridges.
"This matters a lot all of the sudden," said Scott Irwin, a professor of agricultural marketing at the University of Illinois.
Soybeans are one of the country's largest and most valuable crops — $41.8 billion in 2013 — and 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, often dwindling 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 for money that they often don't have.
"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's working on the initiative.
The trade groups believe a bridge's importance shouldn't be measured by how many vehicles use it but 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, according to Irwin, 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.
The Illinois Soybean Association is working to pick a handful of bridges in each county to focus attention and resources on and, it hopes, present creative potential solutions, according to Scott Sigman, who works on transportation issues for the association.
Peoria County board member Sharon Williams says association-funded traffic pattern studies will help.
"Which bridges are critical, how far in the future (do) we need to replace bridges? It gives us a clear look," she said.
The county has an urban area with about 200,000 people and beyond that tens of thousands of acres of farmland. Priorities in those two areas can widely vary, county Engineer Amy McLaren said, and the county has limited money — about $2 million a year for its almost 200 bridges, any one of which could run up to $1.5 million to replace.
Steenhoek is optimistic some of the farmers' wishes can be granted by removing what he says 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, according to John Frauenhoffer, a veteran inspector and director of the American Society of Civil Engineers' Board of Direction.
"You may wire up a bridge and find out that (the weight restriction) is true," he said. "But then again, you may find out that it has a much higher capability."