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The Modern Day Farm to Market Road

Food Security in America and Transportation Infrastructure

It’s been almost 100 years since the first farm to market road sign was set in the ground. The goal was to make the movement of commodities safer and more efficient by designating travel routes for farmers and ranchers bringing their crops and herds to waiting consumers.

Farm to market has taken on a much bigger scope as grains, meat, poultry, logs, animal feed and fertilizers are transported not just from rural farms and ranches into local communities; but from one side of the country to the other and across oceans.

Transportation and Agriculture -Joining Forces

A new congresswoman in Utah is working to facilitate more conversation on the interconnectedness of agricultural and transportation policy. A relationship that often gets buried in the dialogue of bigger policy topics. 

Celeste Maloy says, “ [Transportation] isn’t something that fits neatly into the category of ag policy, and yet it has a big impact on how we do ag policy, and how people on the ground do their jobs and market their products.”  

All fifty states produce agricultural products and most of these goods take at least one if not multiple trips down a highway; from a farm or ranch to a processing plant, from processing to storage, or to a train, barge or plane to be transported to another part of the country, or globe. It’s estimated that over $3 trillion in agricultural freight is moved across the United States in a year’s time.

The American transportation system has allowed for expanded markets.  A dairy cow in New York might be eating soybean meal from Nebraska. The milk from those cows might be processed in New York, but then transported to Chicago in the form of cheese. It’s no longer a one stop shop general store. Industries can market and sell in multiple locations. In fact, food security in America hinges on our ability to transport products quickly to far off places.

Food Security is also dependent on a reliable system of importing and exporting goods.  Produce imported from Canada and Mexico account for over a billion dollars in ag freight. Exports of soybeans, corn, beef and other ag products are another economic driver also coming in at over a billion dollars in freight. The movement of goods keeps the economy moving and also shores up the safety of our food supply chain ensuring that we are not dependent on one single source.

Efficiency has also historically given the U.S. an economic advantage.  And, efficient infrastructure tends to reduce the cost of food since less money is spent on fuel for the transportation of goods. 

In Such A Big Market Can Transportation Really Affect Food Security?

To answer that question we can take a look at the 2021 I-40 Mississippi bridge shut down. The bridge, connecting Arkansas and Tennessee, was briefly shut down when inspectors realized it was compromised.  No traffic was allowed across, and no water vessels were allowed to pass under it. Can you guess what was on the 1,058 barges waiting in line to travel under the bridge? It was mostly food related products. Grain headed South to New Orleans and beyond; and fertilizer headed North up to the farms of the Midwest.

To put it in perspective, the United States exports $100 billion agricultural products in one year's time. Of that $100 billion grain is the top export. That means that every single day gain is being inspected for transport out of the country into the global market. A shutdown like the I-40 bridge and waterway shutdown has far reaching implications.  It backs up the inspection process here in the states and clogs the ports with ships waiting to take products to China, Mexico and Japan.

Fortunately, the waterway opened up relatively quickly. If it hadn’t there would have been a spike in the price of grains as demand increased in southern states and possibly other countries. Highway transportation didn't fare as well. Reports concluded that $2.4 million dollars in ag freight was lost per day while trucks were stuck or rerouted due to the closure.

That puts us back to the point of reliability. Food might be grown safely, and in abundance, and it might even have a vast market, but if it can’t reliably get to that market then the food supply chain isn’t secure.

The erosion of the Mississippi River banks and affected bridges is just one example.  But what about the icy Utah passes used by congresswoman Maloy’s constituents to haul livestock and liquid dairy products. Or, the California floods washing away access roads used by farms and dairies to transport animals and agricultural products? Small farms I’ve worked with in Vermont can’t sell squash once winter temperatures set in. No truck can climb the icy hills to even load the squash and take it to market.

Efficient or Dependent?

With efficiency once again in the driver’s seat, food security in America might be dependent on a literally crumbling infrastructure.  Traditionally, agricultural industries will co-locate to cut down on shipping costs. This is partly why we see such a high concentration of the ag sector in the Midwest and up and down the Mississippi. Not only is soil better here, but airports, major highways and waterways are all easily accessible. However, in consolidating and curbing cost, the outlying regions are at risk in the event of transportation shutdowns. 

This could be further evidence to support more regionally diverse agricultural industries, which would move the flow of products back in the vicinity of the original farm to market concept. 

Like congresswoman Maloy imparts, agriculture and transportation policy are absolutely intertwined. Broader discussion is needed between regions, industries and government committees. The impact of the dialogue will be significant. Food security is very much dependent on the resurfacing, rebuilding and expansion of our nation’s highways as well as a more clear understanding of how agricultural products move across our country.

As with so many things in ag, knowledge sharing can only help in building a balance between safe and efficient supply chain practices. Are there more transportation hurdles on the horizon or are we staying ahead on infrastructure projects? Your experiences can help shape the conversation.

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