Grain everywhere, but too few ways to move it

Across the country, from grain elevator to grain elevator, golden wheat and corn are piled in towering mounds, waiting for a rail car to haul them to market.

It's the dark side of the booming global demand for U.S. corn, wheat and soybeans. The surge in exports is revealing inefficiencies in the country's railways, highways and rivers that carry the grain that helps feed the world. And those bottlenecks are costing farmers, shippers and ultimately consumers millions of dollars a year.

Mark Hodges, the executive director of the Oklahoma Wheat Commission, has seen it firsthand. Piles of grain sat like giant anthills, waiting to be shipped. Frantic managers couldn't find enough rail cars to haul it.

“When you're putting wheat on the ground, there's going to be a loss,” Hodges said. “They don't ever like to put it on the ground, but when wheat is $7, $8 or $10 a bushel, they sure don't like to put it on the ground.”

A surprisingly large harvest this fall is expected to test the system even further. The U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts farmers will produce the second largest corn crop and fourth largest soybean crop in history.

In 2006, an estimated 1 billion bushels of grain was stored outside or in improvised shelters in Iowa, Illinois and Indiana, adding an estimated $107 million to $160 million that year to the cost of transporting it, according to USDA figures. That's about 1percent of the combined $13.8billion value of corn and soybean exports in 2006.