Most people are well aware that Mother Nature can cause trouble for crops, but few make the connection between the effects of rain or drought on major rivers and how that can also be a disaster for farmers and ranchers who rely on the inland waterways system to get their products to key international markets.

In late 2011, Mississippi River levels and those of many of its tributaries were close to record highs, but the summer 2012 drought that scorched the Midwest had the Mississippi running so extremely low this January that barge operators were worried they wouldn't be able to float their loads up and down the river. At the time, getting crops down the river wasn't the only concern for farmers, they were also anxious about inputs like fertilizer making it north in time to prep for spring planting.

 

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In fact, Mississippi River levels were so low near Thebes, Ill., that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers early this year was compelled to blast away rock pinnacles in an effort to keep that critical part of the river deep enough for barges.

A few short months later, in April, farmers, barge operators and area residents and officials were once again watching the Mississippi, Missouri and other rivers, as they swelled to dangerous levels after heavy Midwestern rains. In early May, flood warnings were in place for rivers in Missouri, Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa.