Unless something is done, our infrastructure may not be able to handle the enormous increase in agricultural production.By Charlie O'Brien, AEM Senior Vice President and Ag Sector Lead  

Let’s take a quick look at 2016. Corn planted is estimated at 94.1 million acres, up 7 percent from last year. This is the highest planted acreage in the United States since 1944. Soybean planted area for 2016 is estimated at a record high 83.7 million acres, up 1 percent from last year.

And now because of the near perfect growing season this year, yields are up. Both U.S. corn and soybean growers are expected to harvest record-high crops this year, according to the Crop Production report issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). U.S. corn production is forecast at 15.2 billion bushels, while soybean growers are expected to harvest 4.06 billion bushels in 2016. 

This is great news, despite commodity pricing issues farmers are facing this year. (A important topic, but for another blog.)

Now let’s wind the clock forward to 2050. World population is 9.5 billion. Farmers will continue to increase their productivity, doing their important part in meeting food demands to feed this growing population. Think about the norm being 300, 400, 500 bu/acre corn.  And what about 100, 150 or 200 bu/acre of soybeans?  Great right? 

But farm production is only half the equation. Will we be able to get these high yields to market? Will our roads, bridges, ports, etc. be able to handle this enormous increase in production? 

The answer is NO! Certainly not if the level of infrastructure maintenance, growth and improvement remains the same as it is today in the United States. 

Consider the railcar shortage in 2014, when farmers were struggling to get corn to market. Delays like this can cost farmers hundreds of millions of dollars. With our record harvest this year, will we see piles of corn outside waiting to be delivered? Absolutely. Just drive across Iowa and Illinois in October and November and you’ll see them.

And what about the barges transporting our grain? Forty-nine percent of commercial vessels on the inland waterways network were delayed in 2014 because of insufficient lock capacity. Delays at ocean ports have grown in part because import flows have increased substantially, while capacity in the ports and on ground access facilities has not kept pace.

Will we need sound bridges to get our trucks to the field and then to the elevator in 2050?  Yes.  Nearly 10 percent of the country's bridges (58,495 out of 609,539) were considered structurally deficient last year and in need of repairs, according to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association. Bridges, critical links that are often bottlenecks on the road network, show disparities in condition, with urban bridges in better condition than service bridges that sometimes force long detours, particularly around rural facilities.

Today’s U.S. transportation infrastructure system was built for a different time. But the global economy and emerging technology have changed everything, and tomorrow will be different again. Looking forward, we must accommodate a growing population. The need for upgraded infrastructure to move our commodities in the future is critical. It is imperative for us to have an infrastructure that will adequately transport the population food requirements in 2050.

So do we have the answer? Not yet, but AEM is taking a thought leader position in looking at developing proposed solutions to meet the infrastructure needs of the United States. AEM is sponsoring an initiative called Infrastructure Vision 2050 that is proactively exploring the future needs of our transportation infrastructure. Stay tuned to watch the development of the vision.  Actually, don’t just watch. Get engaged and participate at aem.org/advocacy/infrastructure-vision-2050/. We need everyone’s ideas put into the mix to find the best vision for our future that will keep our competitive advantage in producing and efficiently and effectively moving our agricultural commodities to the market today and into the future.