A tow boat labors against the current as it slowly emerges around a bend in the Missouri River.
The vessel finally docks at St. Joseph’s river port and connects to a barge loaded with distillers grain, an ethanol byproduct used as animal feed. In around 12 days, the barge will arrive in New Orleans, where the grain gets loaded onto a cargo ship for the longer trip to its ultimate destination: northern Africa.
Far from the Sahara Desert, Bill Becker watches the loading process near the U.S. Highway 36 bridge and remarks on the value of patience.
“It’s not for just-in-time delivery,” he said.
Becker and others associated with St. Joseph’s river port know a thing or two about patience. They wait hours for a tug boat’s arrival and know that the cargo — there’s enough inside one barge to fill up to 60 tractor-trailers — won’t reach its terminus on the Missouri or Mississippi rivers for days or weeks. For the port itself, this is a journey measured in years, almost decades, since the first concrete was poured in 2001 and the facility went years without serving a commercial barge in St. Joseph.
“We have to prove ourselves,” said Becker, the chief executive of the company that manages the port. “In two to three years, I think you’ll see that this investment was actually wise.”
Progress has been slow, but after more than $4 million in facility improvements, after floods and droughts curtailed river traffic, St. Joseph’s multi-modal port is finally showing some giddy-up. The facility handled three barges last year and expects seven or eight barge shipments during the 2019 navigation season.
“We’re on pace to do 20 to 25 next year,” Becker said. “Ultimately, I think the region can support 75 to 100 barges a year. We think we have that type of opportunity and that type of growth.”
Over the years, state and local funds were used for concrete expansion, new truck scales and a conveyor system, but ports were an easy target for state budget cuts. Two recent developments may have tipped the scales.
Construction of two bulk storage facilities allows the port to have large quantities of fertilizer, grain, steel coils other other products ready for barges that don’t exactly arrive on a precise train schedule. Transport 360, a division of MK Minerals in Wathena, Kansas, provides on-site management to run the port and drum up business.
Becker is the CEO of Transport 360 and MK Minerals.
“You have to have all the pieces of the puzzle together,” said Brad Lau, executive director of the St. Joseph Port Authority. “What really helped was getting those storage facilities. There’s such a low margin. In order to be viable, you have to be able to get them in, get them loaded and get them unloaded.”
He said he believes the state will provide additional funding as the economic potential becomes apparent. The Missouri Department of Transportation estimates that St. Joseph’s port could bring $1.2 million in economic output and help support 2,066 jobs.
Becker believes the port will grow in popularity as highway infrastructure is stretched to the limit. Each barge shipment takes up to 60 trucks off the road.
“As I like to say, the river doesn’t get chuckholes,” Becker said. “We’re excited about the opportunity.”