The 25,000 grower-members of the American Soybean Association (ASA) is breathing a collective sigh of relief upon learning that vessels up to 47 feet draft are again being permitted to navigate the Mississippi River at the port in south Louisiana.

This will allow Panamax and larger sized ships, those capable of holding 55,000 tons or more of soybeans, to safely resume export activities.

"The competitiveness of U.S. soybean exports depends heavily on the economic efficiency of the Mississippi River and Panamax ships," said ASA President Bob Metz, a soybean producer from West Browns Valley, S.D. "Reopening the port to deep draft vessels is a significant development in the effort to put the Center Gulf back in business."

Half the value of the $18 billion U.S. soybean crop is exported each year as whole soybeans, soymeal, soyoil and other value-added soy products. In 2004, the Port District of New Orleans was responsible for 15.7 million metric tons of whole soybean exports, which represented more than 62 percent of all U.S. whole soybeans exported. The Port also shipped more than 1.8 million metric tons of soybean meal, which represented nearly 45 percent of all U.S. soymeal exported.

"Soybean producers extend a special thanks to the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, Coast Guard, Department of Transportation, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Agriculture and all of the local officials involved in the incident command structure who are working so closely with our industry to re-establish marine transportation in the region," Metz said.

During the past week, river traffic gradually increased as it was determined vessels could safely navigate the channel. Shallow draft traffic, like barges and tow boats, and ship traffic with up to a draft depth of 39 feet, had already been cleared for navigation earlier last week, allowing some grain elevators to resume off-loading of barges and loading of ships. But two unidentified underwater obstructions in the bar channel at the mouth of Southwest Pass of the Mississippi River had to be cleared before the Army Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard could authorize access to vessels requiring more than 39 feet of depth.

"ASA also extends thanks to all the men and women working in the port operating the tugboats, tow boats and barges, the ships, the grain elevators and terminal loading facilities, and the utility crews that either have or will soon restore electrical service in the area," Metz said. "We know many of you are dealing with overwhelming personal challenges and making great sacrifices to do your jobs. We salute your patriotism and your fortitude during these trying times."

Thousands of jobs in south Louisiana and throughout the country depend on the economic activity created by the production and transportation of bulk agricultural commodities. Soybeans are the highest value U.S. agricultural export. Top soybean customers include China, Japan, the European Union, Mexico, Taiwan, Korea and Indonesia.

There are 10 export elevators in the surrounding New Orleans area and 3 "floating rigs" that do not have storage capacity, but can load 30,000 to 60,000 bushels of grain per hour from river barges directly on to ocean-going vessels or ocean-going barges. In total, these elevators have a storage capacity of approximately 526 million bushels of grain with a capability of loading 970,000 bushels per hour when fully operational. All of the facilities are located in Louisiana.

Last week, ASA learned that seven of the 10 elevators were operating and can load vessels, and at least one of the mid-stream floating elevators was also reported to be loading.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated on Wednesday, Sept. 7, the operational capacity of the elevators and floating rigs was at 63 percent, with vessel restrictions (arrivals and departures), slower barge movements and limited staffing minimizing full utilization of loading capacity. More than 70 ships have already moved into or out of the river since the hurricane closure. Loading of the Panamax and larger sized ships will contribute to increased efficiency.

Full operational capacity for the system is contingent upon a combination of factors. Perhaps most important to all is providing for employees access to facilities and the basic necessities of housing, food and water. Some are still concerned with electrical service. Discharge and return upstream, as well as salvage of damaged river barges, is also an important step to full recovery of this critical system. Navigation of the river around the clock is necessary to regain full capacity. It is currently restricted to daylight hours only.

"The focus now is on reinstalling navigational aids that were destroyed or carried away during the hurricane," Metz said. "The Coast Guard has prioritized their work with regard to repairing aids to navigation. Soon the system of markers, buoys and lights will be restored so that unrestricted river traffic will be allowed."

The American Soybean Association is a national, not-for-profit, grassroots membership organization that develops and implements policies to increase the profitability of its members and the entire soybean industry. ASA was founded in 1920.