Ryan Thurston stands on the banks of the Ohio River where a river terminal operated by Archer Daniels Midland collects and loads grain destined for New Orleans. It is one of two terminals in Pulaski County.
Ryan Thurston stands on the banks of the Ohio River where a river terminal operated by Archer Daniels Midland collects and loads grain destined for New Orleans. It is one of two terminals in Pulaski County.
MOUND CITY, Ill. — When it comes to selling grain, the price is right in Pulaski County.

Adjacent river terminals operated by Consolidated Grain & Barge and Archer Daniels Midland typically offer the highest basis price for corn, soybeans and wheat destined for the Port of New Orleans and points overseas.

There are two main reasons: Mound City is near the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. Also, there are no locks to impede barge traffic down the Mississippi.

“In general, in the state of Illinois, this is about the best price you can get, because we’re closer to New Orleans,” said Ryan Thurston, who manages the ADM facility. “When the export market is hot, this is the center of your best price. This area usually has one of the highest-price basis points in the country.”

The terminal draws from producers in portions of three states: southern Illinois, southeastern Missouri and northwestern Kentucky. The region stretches from Mount Vernon, Ill., southward through Sikeston, Mo., and covering the Paducah, Ky., area.

The river terminals are strong components of the county’s farm makeup. With a population under 6,000, it’s not surprising that agriculture is a big part of Pulaski County’s economy.

State’s Southern Tip

Nearly two-thirds of the area in the county — situated at the southern tip of Illinois — is farmland. But farming and the grain terminals aren’t the only connections to agriculture.

The county also is home to a community college with a strong ag component and a still-unfinished lock and dam project designed to streamline barge traffic.

Nearly 90,000 of the county’s 130,000 acres are in agricultural production. As is the case in most of Illinois, corn and soybeans are the main crops.

Wheat also is grown extensively, with 45,000 acres harvested in 2013. There also is a small amount of grain sorghum, fruits and vegetables.

Beef cattle make up the majority of livestock production. Dairy and hog production has dwindled over the past few decades.

The county ranks in the bottom 10 percent in many Illinois ag statistics, such as corn and soybean production, according to the ag census compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But it ranks much higher in categories including wheat production, beef cattle and average cash income per farm.

Shawnee Community College in Ullin — the southernmost college in Illinois — is the focal point of ag education in the county. About 45 students study agriculture there

“We have a very viable ag program,” said instructor Ed Billingsley. “It’s growing every year. I’m impressed by the number of kids we get and the quality of the kids we get.”

Agribusiness and wildlife management studies there are related.

“They cross over,” Billingsley said. “A lot of our kids take a few of the classes on both sides. That way, they have a little more diverse background. Most people who go into agriculture like to dabble in wildlife anyway.”

The school also offers full-ride scholarships. An active ag club involves students in a number of activities throughout the year, including maintaining an on-campus greenhouse where they raise and sell plants.

Most students continuing an ag education at a four-year school choose between Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Southeastern Missouri University in Cape Girardeau or Murray State in Murray, Ky., Billingsley said.

Transit Point

The location of the ADM facility has served in some storage capacity since the late 1970s, when the Hudson family built an elevator. Another company — Bulk Services — handled the terminal business.

Tabor Grain bought Hudson Grain, and around 1990 ADM purchased both Bulk Services and Tabor Grain.

Storage is 1.4 million barrels. It handles corn, soybeans, wheat and a small amount of grain sorghum.

In addition, some non-GMO corn and beans are run through the facility. The busiest time is from mid-October through mid-November.

With its entire southern side bordering the Ohio River, water is a vital part of the agriculture industry in Pulaski County. Low water levels affect barge traffic and high levels can mean flooding.

“Low water is always problematic,” Thurston said. “You have to have reduced drafts. Normally at this facility, because we don’t have any locks to go through, we can load 14-foot barges to 12 feet deep, which is full draft.”

The drought of 2012 dropped the river level, impeding barge traffic. In turn, that resulted in increased transportation costs.

“With the low water back in ‘12 were loading only 9 feet, 6 inches — a 3-foot difference,” Thurston said. “That’s several tons you don’t get on a barge. It takes three barges to put what you usually get on two. As freight costs increase, that’s reflected in the cash prices by basis levels. As freight goes higher, basis levels to lower.”

The Olmsted Locks and Dam being constructed under the auspices of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will replace two aging locks on the Ohio River. The project is rife with delays and cost overruns.

It originally was estimated to cost $775 million, but now probably will top $3 billion and won’t be completed until 2024.

Once completed, it is expected to shave five hours off trips through the locks.