St. Louis-area flooding disrupts milling operations

by Ron Sterk
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Flooded road
Four major flour mills were either closed or unable to move product because of flooded roads and railroads.

KANSAS CITY — Flooding, including some record-high river levels, brought flour milling and elevator operations to a near halt and barge traffic to a complete halt in the St. Louis region during the last week of the year and into early 2016.

Four major flour mills in the region were either closed due to the floods directly or were unable to get wheat in and flour and byproducts out due to flooded roads and railroads last week, trade sources said.

Affected facilities in the region included the ADM Milling Co. mill and U.S. Durum Milling, Inc. (Italgrani U.S.A., Inc.) mill, both in St. Louis, and Ardent Mills plants in Alton, Ill., just north of St. Louis, and in Chester, Ill., several miles to the south. The impact ranged from actual flood waters in the Ardent Mills facility in Chester to logistics problems at the ADM Milling plant, which was on higher ground and continued to operate.

“Mississippi River Locks 27, located north of St. Louis, was closed due to high water on Dec. 28,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture said in its latest Grain Transportation report. “In addition, Lock 24, Lock 25, Lock 26 (also known as Melvin Price Locks and Dam) were closed on Dec. 29. Locks above Mississippi River Lock 24 are not expected to be closed. Traffic on the Mississippi river at St. Louis was stopped on Dec. 28 when water levels reached 38 feet, the level at which the Coast Guard restricts traffic through the St. Louis Harbor.” The National Weather Service (N.W.S.) expected the Mississippi river at St. Louis to crest Dec. 31 at 43.1 feet, about 6.5 feet below the record crest of 49.6 feet in 1993.

“As of Dec. 30, the N.W.S. expects the St. Louis water levels to remain above 38 feet until Jan. 3 or 4,” the U.S.D.A. continued. “However, the harbor may not open immediately when the levels are below 38 feet as swift currents and floating debris may interfere with barge traffic. Water levels are expected to decrease rapidly. In 1993, St. Louis water levels were at or above 45 feet for several weeks.”

Barge traffic delays and stoppages also were reported on the Illinois, Ohio, and Arkansas rivers due to flood conditions, the U.S.D.A. said. Mississippi river barge traffic between St. Louis and Cairo, Ill., may be halted or slowed to prevent wake damage to heavily-stressed levees.

As Mississippi flood waters began to recede, mills affected by flooding were determining when they’ll reopen. Facilities not flooded themselves were expected to resume production once they’re able to receive wheat and ship flour and byproducts (railroad sidings and truck dumps and even roads were or still are under water). For some, this may be toward the middle of the first full week in January. The Ardent mill in Chester was expected to require a longer period for cleanup, industry sources said.

Floods in many areas were said to be worse than in 1993, the bar against which all subsequent flood events have been measured. Certainly damage to wheat fields flooded because of their proximity to the Mississippi and its tributaries may be extensive or even total. Elsewhere, ponded water was beginning to evaporate, and crop damage in affected areas may be minimal. Of increasing concern, though, was lack of snow cover across the Central states, which rendered the crop vulnerable to winterkill if and when temperatures turn much colder.

Despite the significant disruptions, the overall impact on flour supply and millfeed availability was limited in part by the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. Milling companies were able to shift at least some production to other mills that had scheduled extra down time for the yearend holiday weeks. While this affected logistics, it limited the potential reduction in flour output and any spike in prices, although wheat quotes from mills in the region were pulled last week. Trade sources estimated as many as 50 loads of millfeed production were lost due to closed mills or logistics due to the floods, but most of that was made up from added flour grind at other mills, again limiting significant price increases, although deliveries were delayed and logistics were complicated.

The heavy rains around St. Louis were just one part of severe weather late in the year that brought heavy snow to the Upper Midwest, a wintry mix across the Southern Plains and even tornadoes in some areas. Warm fall and early winter temperatures meant some hard and soft winter wheat still had not entered dormancy.

The consensus was that the moisture, though extreme — with rain totals in parts of Texas at 10 inches — was probably of a net benefit to the hard red winter crop. There was some concern that parts of the Great Plains lacking snow cover, though, could be harmed by cold temperatures.

That storm movement, though, rendered soft red winter wheat growing areas from northern Arkansas to Ohio vulnerable to flood damage. While much wheat as far south as Tennessee had recently moved into dormancy, some plants remained in a growth stage because of the unusually warm weather this fall. Crop observers indicated some concern that pooling fields with standing water could present problems for wheat plants. At the same time, they seemed convinced a drying weather trend was in store for the Midwest that would mostly take care of problems with flooded fields.

Grain merchandisers were on edge last week because of the high potential for transportation problems caused by the excessive rains in the country’s midsection. Trains aren’t able to move if tracks are submerged in water. While there was no overall assessment of rail transportation performance throughout winter-wheat growing areas, a grain merchandiser in Kansas City said he had observed a slowdown in service last week that he attributed to weather issues.
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