ST. LOUIS — The nation’s inland waterway system is sometimes described as one part of the proverbial three-legged stool — along with road and rail — responsible for moving crops grown in the Midwest to markets around the world.

But the waterways leg could use some propping up.

The network that includes the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois rivers is a big reason American grain farmers compete favorably against their South American counterparts. Those in the industry don’t take that advantage for granted.

“With the Mississippi, Ohio and Illinois rivers, you have this artery for our supply chain that penetrates into the most productive farm ground on the planet,” said Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition. “It’s arguably the main reason why we’re so attractive on the world marketplace.”

Austin Fallin, a transportation specialist at Archer Daniels Midland, called U.S. infrastructure “one of the reasons the United States is one of the global superpowers.”

But many are concerned about the state of the inland waterways system, especially the condition of the locks and dams crucial for economical movement of freight that includes a sizable portion of the corn, soybeans and wheat grown in the nation’s heartland.

Fallin’s colleague at ADM, Austin Ramsey, has seen changes in transportation arriving at the company’s St. Louis terminal from points north.

“We’re seeing a lack of confidence in the waterways infrastructure,” Ramsey said. “Shippers up north, instead of coming down through the lock and dam system, will load up on rail and then come down to here where they can bypass that system. That’s not good for farmers, because it costs more to make that southbound trip on rail.”

The issue is an important one for the United Soybean Board, which distributes soybean checkoff money. Fallin and Ramsey recently brought a group of USB directors up to speed as they toured the Decatur, Ill.-based company’s grain facility in downtown St. Louis.

One 15-barge tow equals the carrying capacity of 870 semi-trucks or more than two 100-car trains. It gets even better at St. Louis, which is south of the northernmost lock and dam on the Mississippi.

“Here in St. Louis, since we don’t have to deal with the lock and dam system, our tows can be up to 40 barges,” Ramsey said. “We have even better economies of scale at this facility.”

But the river transportation system is in need of modernization. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has approved a number of projects to repair and expand the infrastructure, but failure by Congress to approve funding has spanned multiple administrations.

It certainly isn’t a new issue. The St. Louis-based Midwest Area Rivers Council 2000 — the group formed in 1992 and whose name indicated its goal for modernization of the system by the year 2000 — folded several years after that deadline came and went with no work approved for the locks and dams.

“The lock and dam system was largely built in the 1930s with a 50-year lifespan,” Fallin said. “If you do the math, we’re pretty much past that now. There’s a lot of optimism with the current administration and its $1 billion infrastructure proposal. There is some hope for getting the infrastructure back on track.”

Steenhoek said it is difficult to overstate the value of America’s transportation infrastructure to farmers. Without it, the great progress in the nation’s agricultural system over the past few decades would not be fully realized, especially in today’s global market.

“Sure, we can grow crops in significant volumes, but our ability to get them from where they’re grown to our international markets more cost effectively and reliably than our friends in South America is the secret to our success,” he said. “And the inland waterways is a big reason for that.

“Even though Brazil certainly has one of the most extensive inland waterways systems in the world, they don’t take advantage of it near to the extent that we access our inland waterways.”

Nat Williams writes for Illinois Farmer Today, a Lee Enterprises sister publication of The Southern.