Late last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released its “Synopsis of Agricultural Transportation in 2021.” Here’s what the USDA found:
• Year-to-year grain inspections remained steady. Total year-to-date (YTD) grain inspections for export are nearing 2020’s record level. As of Dec. 23, YTD inspections were around 137 million metric tons (mmt), unchanged from the same period in 2020, with corn increasing 31%, but wheat and soybeans decreasing 10% and 19%, respectively. Corn inspected for export to Asia increased significantly in 2021, with increased Asian demand.
• Barged grain movements were slightly lower than in 2020. The barge industry showed its resilience despite multiple challenges to navigation. This included severe winter weather and a limited barge supply, the USDA said. Also, flooding and damage from Hurricane Ida affected barge traffic for months. For the week ending Dec. 25, barged grain shipments reached 36.2 million tons, 6% lower than 2020, but 4% higher than the three-year average. These volumes were supported by high production and strong export demand. This year’s spot rates mostly followed the historical pattern, staying relatively low in the first two quarters of 2021. In mid-August, rates started to rise quickly, spurred by rising movements and a shortage of empty barges. Overall, 2021 weekly rates were higher.
• Grain carloads started and ended 2021 strong. Grain carloads originated by Class I railroads began 2021 high. Through May, carloads were well above recent years. However, during the summer the situation flipped, with grain carloads well below recent years. As the grain harvest headed into September, grain carloads rose significantly and stayed above the weekly averages for 2018-20.
• Fuel prices were above the three-year average. Average diesel fuel prices from January through November were 11% above the three-year average. Fuel prices have been on an upward swing since January. With the lifting of pandemic restrictions, demand rose and fuel supply could not keep up. Several factors worsened the supply shortage, including a cyberattack on the Colonial pipeline in April and a breach and spill in a key pipeline that supplies the Southeast, in October. In 2021's final weeks, fuel prices dropped, responding to the release of millions of barrels of oil reserves. Prices also dropped in response to demand uncertainty created by the coronavirus Omicron variant.