Grain Flows Down the Mississippi
By routing grain to the Gulf of Mexico, Cargill enables growth of the American grain export market.
January 01, 2015
Before World War II, grain in the United States moved eastward across the country from the Midwest to the Northeast by way of Buffalo, New York, and the Erie Canal. Civil engineering projects launched during the Great Depression helped open a new north-to-south route, improving transportation on the Mississippi River and its tributaries. At the end of World War II, grain exports grew significantly as US farm productivity increased and the Midwest became a global source of grain. By the 1950s, shipments of grain were moving all the way down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. Cargill became part of the important north-south flow of goods by positioning itself strategically along America’s rivers.
Cargill’s southernmost terminal on the Mississippi was in Memphis, Tennessee, but before the company could go further south, it needed to invest in its facilities on the upper Mississippi. Cargill dredged a channel to its new facility near Minneapolis, naming it Port Cargill. This opened the Minnesota River to commercial navigation, positioning Port Cargill to become the most important company terminal in Minnesota.
In the early 1940s, Cargill’s next step in enabling the waterway was to build a series of terminals along the Illinois River. The terminals were not massive elevators, but structures with modest capacities built to quickly transfer grain from trucks onto barges. These facilities moved Illinois grain, corn and soybeans north to Chicago and the Great Lakes and south to St. Louis, Missouri, along the Mississippi.
In 1955, Cargill established a US $2.5 million bushel terminal in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, near the mouth of the Mississippi River at the Gulf of Mexico. The company designed the facility to handle 18 million bushels each year. Within three years, capacity at the terminal had tripled and, by 1959, it was considered the largest grain export facility on the US Gulf Coast. By the 1970s, its capacity had grown to 200 million bushels annually, far exceeding the capacities of Cargill’s large elevators serving the Great Lakes.
Not only had Cargill moved with the flow of grain down the Mississippi, the company had invested in all aspects of transporting grain along the river, including the manufacturing of barges, which enabled its grain to reach world markets faster and more efficiently. Transportation patterns continue to evolve today, as does Cargill’s approach to providing sellers and buyers access to the best markets for their commodities.