ST. LOUIS -- A soybean checkoff-funded delegation of U.S. soybean farmers recently evaluated changes being made to the Central and South American transportation system that may help and hinder U.S. agriculture's competitiveness.

The delegation included Vanessa Kummer, United Soybean Board Communications Chair, Vicki Coughlin, USB Audit & Evaluation Chair and member of the USB International Marketing Committee, and USB Director Bob Metz, a member of the USB Global Opportunities and International Marketing Committees.

The U.S. farmers found a window of opportunity exists for the United States to improve its transportation system before competitors match improvements or allow their advantages to reach their full potential. They met with U.S. diplomats, officials of Panama, Brazilian farmers, U.S. farmers who grow soybeans in Brazil and officials with non-governmental organizations in the two countries to evaluate expansion of the Panama Canal and the condition and potential of Brazil's system of roads, railways and waterways as part of the recently concluded 2010 Top Producer Frontier Study Tour.

"We found a very well-managed Panama Canal," said Kummer, a soybean farmer from Colfax, N.D. "The Panama Canal Authority has an aggressive expansion plan that should help improve our ability to move U.S. soy in larger ships to important international markets."

Panama took full control of the canal in 2000 after negotiating a treaty with the United States in the late 1970s. The critical, man-made waterway allows ships a short cut between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The canal expansion currently underway includes a third set of locks that will double the canal capacity and will make room for the transit of more cargo and larger shipping vessels by 2014.

The group also made four stops throughout Brazil evaluating private and public efforts to improve the second-largest soybean producing country's transportation infrastructure. Participants received a close-up view of the Hermasa grain terminal and soybean processing facility operated by The Maggi Group on the Amazon River in northern Brazil. Ocean-going vessels can travel deep into northern Brazil to the terminal, allowing more rapid transport of soy and other agricultural products to export markets.

"This would be similar to having ocean-going ships travel up the Mississippi River from the Port of New Orleans to St. Louis," said Coughlin, a soybean farmer from Watertown, Wis. "The Brazilians don't need to worry about shallow sections in the Amazon River or passing ships and barges through locks," she said. "We need to be very seriously aware of what this potential is and renew efforts to improve our U.S. river systems and other sectors of our transportation infrastructure here in the United States if we want to remain competitive."

The study tour also examined this year's soybean harvest in Brazil, the conditions of rural roads and the status of rail transportation in Brazil with visits to farms in the north central and east central Brazilian states of Matto Grosso and Bahia. USB farmer-leaders had the opportunity to drive combines harvesting in fields 1.5 miles in length from end row to end row, inspect the condition of crops planted in one, single 20,000-acre field and travel on roads jammed with trucks moving soybeans to ports.

"We visited four different large farms that have different business models," said Metz, a soybean farmer from West Brown Valley, S.D. "Some soybean yields weren't as good as expected. They have some other large challenges, too, such as borrowing capital, high interest rates, exchange rates and increasing labor costs. Income safety net programs such as crop insurance remain non-existent."

Brazil has been selected to host the 2014 World Cup soccer tournament and the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. The soybean checkoff farmer-leaders found that Brazilians expect those two events to speed up transportation infrastructure improvements in their country. Government officials have said previously that the country still has the potential to put millions of acres of virgin land into agricultural production. The 2010 Top Producer Frontier Study Tour participants also found the country's animal agriculture sector continues to boom creating more competition for poultry, red meat and fish exports.

SOURCE: United Soybean Board.