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Getting out while they can: Frigid November bringing river shipping season to abrupt end

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Old Man Winter is forcing Winona river barge traffic to wrap up at least a week early, a sudden cap to a season where shippers negotiated wild weather, a temporary river closure, and other challenges.

“It definitely affects things,” CD Corp owner Dan Nisbit said. “It takes a week-and-a-half out of our busiest times.”

Nisbit, who owns one of the shipping companies along the Winona harbor, said companies typically stop shipping around Thanksgiving, but the early cold weather has moved that timetable up. Customers are worried their barges won’t have enough time to make it south before ice arrives, Nisbit said, and are opting to shut down early.

“In the backwater there’s some ice floating around,” Nisbit said. “Because of the weather everyone changed their plans.”

Nisbit said the early deadline caused the company to go into emergency mode this weekend and work around the clock to get as many shipments out as possible. The time crunch became such an issue that a few barges decided not to risk unloading in Winona, and instead headed farther down river with the product.

CD Corp plans to have the last barges out this weekend. For CHS, an agricultural commodities processor and shipper in Winona, that last barge is expected to be on its way today.

“With the cold snap here, we’ll be closing up (Tuesday),” CHS interim manager Brian Brauch said.”It’s definitely inconvenient. It does hurt us. A lot of farmers haven’t finished harvesting yet.”

The bad weather is the bow on a bad early Christmas present for barge shippers. Barge traffic had an unusually late start this year with the river being iced over until mid-April, then heavy flooding in spring caused a river closure and emergency dredging operation.

“A very late opening, high water, low water, and now we’re dealing with an early closing,” Nisbit said.

Railroad congestion

In areas of the Midwest — especially close to North Dakota — railroad congestion caused by oil shipments have pushed farmers to find alternative ways of transporting their crops, leading to an increase in barge traffic.

A report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture said grain barge tonnage is up 13 percent this month compared with the five-year average. Another federal report notes that barge rates for export grain in October averaged 33 to 60 percent higher than the five-year average for the month.

That hasn’t been the case in Winona, though.

City of Winona director of economic development Lucy McMartin said she hasn’t heard of any agricultural barge increases due to railroad congestion. CHS’ Brauch said he’s seen an increase in agriculture shipments compared with last year, but it’s due to having stronger crop yields.

Nisbit said he’s not seeing much impact either. But agriculture shipments have dwindled in recent years anyway, because farmers have been trucking corn to nearby ethanol plants instead of shipping them out by barge.

“(Agriculture business has) been steadily decreasing,” Nisbit said. “I would say that has nothing to do with rail (congestion).”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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