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Low Mississippi River limits barges, frustrating farmers

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The transport restrictions are a headache for barge companies, but even more worrisome for farmers who have watched drought scorch their fields.

DES MOINES, Iowa — A long stretch of hot, dry weather has left the Mississippi River so low that barge companies are reducing their loads just as Midwest farmers are preparing to harvest crops and send tons of corn and soybeans downriver to the Gulf of Mexico.

The transport restrictions are a headache for barge companies, but even more worrisome for thousands of farmers who have watched drought scorch their fields for much of the summer. Now they will face higher prices to transport what remains of their crops.

Farmer Bruce Peterson, who grows corn and soybeans in southeastern Minnesota, chuckled wryly that the dry weather had withered his family’s crop so extensively that they won’t need to worry so much about the high cost of transporting the goods downriver.

“We haven’t had rain here for several weeks so our crop size is shrinking,” Peterson said. “Unfortunately, that has taken care of part of the issue.”

About 60% of U.S. grain exports are taken by barge down the Mississippi to New Orleans, where the corn, soybeans and wheat are stored and ultimately transferred to other ships. It’s usually an inexpensive, efficient way to transport crops, as a typical group of 15 barges lashed together carries as much cargo as about 1,000 trucks.

But as river levels drop, that cost has soared. The cargo rate from St. Louis southward is now up 77% above the three-year average.

Prices have risen because the river south of St. Louis does not remain consistently deep enough now to accommodate typical barges, forcing companies to load less into each vessel and string fewer barges together.

North of St. Louis, a series of locks and dams guarantees a 9-foot-deep channel as far north as Minneapolis-St. Paul. But that’s not the case in the lower Mississippi.

“We’re keeping things moving but could use some rain, some help from Mother Nature,” said Merritt Lane, president of Canal Barge Company of New Orleans.

Canal Barge, which works much of the Mississippi as well as the Illinois and Ohio rivers, has had to lighten loads so barges ride higher in the water. The company also can’t link as many barges together because the shipping lane is narrower, Lane said.

A narrowed shipping lane also means barges from different companies must squeeze into limited space, forcing backups and delays.

This is the second straight year that drought has caused the Mississippi to drop to near-record lows. With no significant rain in the forecast, it’s likely to keep falling.

The shallow river is especially striking given the height of the river just months ago. A huge snowpack in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin quickly melted, forcing riverfront communities such as Davenport, Iowa, and Savanna, Illinois, to hurriedly erect barriers to stay dry in late April and early May.

Though floodwaters quickly receded, they left behind mountains of underwater sand, forcing the Corps of Engineers to “dredge like crazy” to clear out a shipping channel, said Tom Heinold, who commands the Corps’ Rock Island district spanning 312 miles (500 kilometers) of the Mississippi from northern Iowa south to Missouri.

“After the flood came through this spring it was a touchy situation,” Heinold said. “In May and June we were jumping very quickly from place to place to try to get pilot channels open as the water was dropping.”

Northern stretches of the river are now in good shape, but dredging continues south of St. Louis, Heinold said.

Months of dry and warm weather have hit the Midwest hard, damaging crops in much of the region west of the Mississippi River. In Kansas, 40% of the soybean crop was reported in poor or very poor condition, with the same conditions for 40% of the corn crop in Missouri.

The Midwest grows most of the nation’s corn and soybeans. The percentage rated good to excellent nationwide was a little more than 50%, the worst rating in more than a decade.

Then there is the higher cost of shipping crops downriver.

Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, said many Midwest farmers have multiple transport options, among them trucking and shipment by train for use by nearby ethanol and biodiesel plants and for processing into animal feed. But for grain exported from the U.S., the higher cost of shipping down the Mississippi hurts.

“It’s the way that farmers in the middle of the United States connect with the international marketplace,” said Steenhoek, whose group advocates for effective crop transportation systems. “It allows these farmers to have a very efficient way of moving their products a long distance in a very economical manner.”

Rising barge costs eating directly into farmers’ profits come at a time when American soybean and corn exports face increased international competition, he said.

From his work site beside the Mississippi River in Red Wing, Minnesota, Jim Larson watches as the river rises and falls through the seasons. He has seen plenty of droughts and floods during 30 years in the business and said it forces everyone who relies on the river to remain nimble.

“Some years you have flood and some years you have drought and sometimes you have them both in the same year,” said Larson, manager of Red Wing Grain, a storage and grain-loading operation. “It’s crazy and it seems like lately we’re having more of both, and so you have to be adaptable and change with the situation that is given to you. Kind of keeps you on your toes.”

Watch the latest local news from the Twin Cities and across Minnesota in our YouTube playlist:

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Grow with KARE: Three types of Lavender

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GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. — When deciding which type of lavender to add to your garden, the choice will likely be between three main types commonly found at garden centers. All have flowers that are gorgeous and make beautiful garden plants, but beyond that, each variety has special and specific traits.

English Lavenders: Generally sweet and used for culinary purposes. Everyone has different tastes, of course, but generally, the varieties to used for cooking are from the Lavandula angustifolia family, known as English lavender. Any English lavender cultivar will be flavorful. Try “Royal Velvet,” “Folgate,” “Melissa,” “Munstead”, or “Lady.”

French Lavenders: Also edible but isn’t usually used for culinary. They have a higher oil content which can make the lavender taste soapy to some. That trait makes French Lavender wonderful for distilling into essential oil. The stems are also longer, which are great for cuttings.

Spanish Lavenders: Not hardy enough to thrive outside in Minnesota, but you may find them at garden centers as topiaries. These will not grow back in our northern climate if planted in the ground and should be treated as an annual.



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Rainbow Health abruptly shuts down

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According to the organization’s website, Rainbow Health served 2,366 Minnesotans last year alone.

MINNEAPOLIS — A nonprofit organization that’s long served the state’s LGBTQ+ community abruptly closed Thursday, shocking both its staff and clients.

In a statement posted to Facebook on Thursday, the organization announced the closure of Rainbow Health, saying:  “Due to insurmountable financial challenges, we can no longer sustain our operations.”

A similar message was shared with staff hours before the organization – that serves thousands of people across the state – closed its doors.

“We were told that Rainbow Health was insolvent and would be dissolving as of 5 p.m.,” said Ash Tifa, the program coordinator for Rainbow Health Legal Services.

According to the organization’s website, Rainbow Health served 2,366 Minnesotans last year alone. But workers say they work with tens of thousands of people within a marginalized community.

“Our organization serves thousands and thousands across Minnesota, with everything from case management, to therapy and telehealth, a pharmacy, housing support, rent checks, grocery money,” Tifa said, adding: “We’re the State’s largest AIDS-service organization.”

Tifa noted that the move comes just days after the organization’s CEO resigned following a unanimous vote of “No Confidence” by those workers who are represented by SEIU Healthcare Minnesota and Iowa. And while the workers remain deeply concerned for their clients, they also have questions and concerns for a board they feel didn’t keep them in the loop or fulfill their contract.

In a statement posted to SEIU Healthcare Minnesota and Iowa, the union stated: “Despite contract language in the workers’ union contract as members of SEIU Healthcare MN & IA that requires 30 days advance notice of layoff to union-represented employees, workers found out just hours before the organization said it was closing its doors forever, with no explanation of what happened or what is next for the workers, clients or community.”

Amid all the turmoil, advocates are also urging clients to consider other community resources for care. 

In a statement, Shannah Mulvihill with Mental Health Minnesota, said:

“I am saddened to hear about the closure of Rainbow Health, which helped serve important needs in our LGBTQIA+ community. Unfortunately, many nonprofits are experiencing significant funding challenges right now, especially those providing direct services and care. Many Minnesotans who had relied on Rainbow Health may not know where to turn for help, but there is support available during this time.

Mental Health Minnesota’s Warmline provides peer support every day from 9 AM to 9PM if you need to talk, and the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is open 24/7 if you’re struggling.

Minnesota Warmline (peer support)

Call: 855-WARMLINE (855-927-6546)

988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline

The Trevor Project (LGBTQ support)



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Business owners oppose proposed homeless shelter in Uptown

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The shelter would offer medical respite services to homeless people. Local business owners and residents plan to oppose at the Planning Commission’s Aug. 12 meeting.

MINNEAPOLIS — For the last four years, Mattisse Johnson has operated #FACE, her day spa in Uptown, with the door locked.

“Because all day long we have people off the street who try to come in,” she said. “We have had people we’ve let in, thinking they’re here for good reasons, and they’ve stolen from us. In the middle of the day.”

Mattisse says she wants her business to stay at the corner of West Lake Street and Colfax , because she’s a believer in Uptown — and its recovery.

“I love Uptown because growing up in Minneapolis, this was the dream,” she said.

But a proposed homeless shelter right across the street has business owners banding together in opposition. 

“I think it would be great somewhere else. I just don’t think it belongs on a business corridor,” Johnson said.

“One more thing that’s going to impede the recovery of uptown,” said State Farm insurance agent Lawrence Thomas.

Thomas, whose office is right next door, feels the same as Matisse — that homeless services are needed but that the location is not appropriate.

“And I feel like these conversations, if they’re uncomfortable, I get it. But they need to be had,” Thomas said.

The proposal before the Minneapolis Panning Commission is from Lakeshore Care Inc, a company formed in March. 

Its project description says they plan to “offer temporary, supportive care for individuals recovering from illnesses or medical procedures.”

Lakeshore Care told KARE 11 News they have a medical team with decades of experience to offer respite care.

They want that particular location for proximity to healthcare providers, accessibility, and community integration..

And they plan to address safety concerns in part with security patrols and not allowing clients to “loiter or wander aimlessly”

In this week’s meeting several people spoke out.  Local business owner Andrea Corbin from the Uptown Association and Lynnlake Association says residents are weighing in as well.

“It’s everybody that lives and works in this area,” Corbin said.

The next step in this process is the Minneapolis Planning Commission will hold a hearing on August 12.



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