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Propane shortage hinders harvest in Midwest

By
Jessie Higgins
An abnormally wet year means Midwestern farmers need more propane to fuel fans to dry their grains. Photo by Raysonho@Open Grid Scheduler/Grid Engine/Wikimedia
An abnormally wet year means Midwestern farmers need more propane to fuel fans to dry their grains. Photo by Raysonho@Open Grid Scheduler/Grid Engine/Wikimedia

EVANSVILLE, Ind., Nov. 15 (UPI) -- Farmers who already were battling floods and blizzards to harvest their 2019 crop have been stymied yet again, this time by a shortage of propane.

Growers use propane-powered fans to dry wet corn and soybeans. Without those dryers, wet grains cannot be stored. This was an abnormally wet year, which means many of this season's beans and corn must be dried, and that requires more propane.

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That, coupled with the freezing weather that has hit in the Midwest this fall, has created a surge in demand for propane -- more than companies in the region had on hand.

"We fought mud to get the crop in and we fought mud to get the fertilizer out and we fought mud at the start of getting the crop out," said Casey Schlichting, a northern Iowa farmer. "Now, it's finally froze up enough to get the tractors out, and all of a sudden we've got no gas."

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Demand for propane spiked in Iowa about three weeks ago when many farmers began harvesting. Propane facilities in that state were the first to run low, said Jeff Petrash, the vice president and general counsel for the National Propane Gas Association.

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Around the same time, a series of fall blizzards struck many areas of the Midwest. The unseasonable cold weather created a second spike in propane demand from residents who rely on propane furnaces to heat their homes (about 4 percent of American homes), and livestock and poultry farmers who use propane furnaces to heat their animal dwellings.

So far, Iowa is bearing the brunt of the shortage, Petrash said. However, as increasingly desperate Iowa farmers cross state lines to search for propane, concerns arise that the shortage could spread.

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On Nov. 1, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration declared a regional emergency for Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

The declaration was in response to the "onset of early winter weather conditions, flooding, and high demand resulting in decreased availability of heating fuel, including propane," the agency said in a statement. It waived certain driving hour restrictions for drivers delivering propane to the impacted area.

Some Midwestern state governors also have declared states of emergency and provided money to keep costs down and bring in more supplies.

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"The good news is, as best we can tell, people still have enough propane to heat their homes and cattle barns and poultry sheds," Petrash said.

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The supply for grain growers, however, has slowed, forcing farmers to stop their harvest and wait.

"I've got 60 acres left, but there's not a lot I can do because I've got no gas," Schlichting said.

It's a delay Schlichting and his fellow farmers can ill afford. Historically heavy rains battered the Midwest this spring and fall, delaying both planting and harvest. Then a freak October blizzard created further delays.

Now that the weather finally is dry enough to get tractors in the fields, farmers have a small window of time to bring in their crops. And that window could close at any moment.

"Depending on what the weather does, this could get ugly," Schlichting said. "We all knew this was coming back in June and July. I'm at a loss for how [propane suppliers] could not see this coming. How they missed that so drastically, I do not know."

The shortage was not a complete surprise to the industry, Petrash said. His association had been anticipating a possible surge in demand since April, when heavy rains and flooding delayed planting.

Late planting means crops have less time to grow and properly dry before farmers have to harvest. However, it's not a guarantee that grains will need extra drying, Petrash said.

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"As early as October, we said we were not sure whether this was going to be an issue or not," Petrash said. "There were so many factors at play. But, by the end of October, it became clear that Iowa had a huge crop that was being harvested, and it was wet."

Gas and propane companies are currently shipping large quantities propane by truck and rail to Iowa and surrounding states, Petrash said.

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