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Thune hits small towns to talk ag issues, railcar shortage

Sen. John Thune talks with Levi Doyle, 17 of Alexandria, during one of his stops Thursday morning. The senator travelled to Alexandria, Howard and Salem Thursday to visit with communities. (Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic)

ALEXANDRIA — Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., posed a question Thursday morning to those at CHS Farmers Alliance.

"What can Uncle Sam do for you?" he asked the handful of locals gathered in the store.

"Raise crop prices," said resident Matt Schroeder, drawing laughs from others, including Thune.

Between the crops and one of the senator's emphases this year -- the railcar shortage -- Thune's focus Thursday was on agriculture. While things are moving along fine now, Thune says he expects a challenge.

"We're expecting another record crop," he told The Daily Republic Thursday, standing on the sidewalk of Main Street in Alexandria. "They're saying 1.1 billion bushels, which will dwarf anything we've seen. Last year was a record and this will pass it by quite a bit. We already had transportation issues last year, so we're trying to get ahead of that and we're having conversations with the railroads."

Thune has met with officials from Burlington Northern and Santa Fe (BNSF) and Canadian Pacific in recent months, including with BNSF Executive Chairman Matt Rose last week. Thune said he believes both companies understand the shortage problem needs to be dealt with before harvest.

"(Rose) is very aware of the problems and is working to not only get a car supply but locomotives and to help now with the wheat harvest and with the corn and soybeans to come," Thune said. "But it's going to be a constant thing to be vigilant about."

A July 24 report shows BNSF was 294 cars past due, which were an average of 9.5 days late -- a much-improved figure compared to the 1,300 railcars past due on March 21, which were late by 23.3 days. South Dakota's problem pales in comparison to the past-due car count in North Dakota and Montana, which are 3,359 and 1,068 cars behind, respectively. Thune said he's working with the federal Surface Transportation Board to make sure a plan is in place for the harvest season and to avoid a scenario where large amounts of grain have to be stored on the ground because there are no cars to move the grain.

"We want to make sure that the railroads are doing everything they can do make sure they're keeping up with the agricultural harvest in South Dakota, because we can't afford to have grain spoiling on the ground. That's not good for anybody," Thune said.

Thune said he's made the issue a priority because of how much it means to South Dakotans and their way of life.

"It's in their best interest to keep shippers happy," he said of the railroads. "They know that. Sometimes these things are decided by who makes the most noise, and we're just trying to make sure that we're in their ear and voicing our concerns on behalf of shippers here in South Dakota."

Alexandria CHS Farmers Alliance Elevator Manager George Schulte said his elevator doesn't deal with much for railroad service, instead moving most of its grain by truck and mostly shipping to Mitchell. Other truckloads are hauled to ethanol plants at Loomis and Marion.

"It seems like the grain market has gone in the tank, and so everyone is just sort of waiting things out," he said.

As is the case, the market dictates business on the farm and at the elevator.

"If the market was really good, we'd probably be swimming in grain, trying to get rid of it," he said. "But farmers are holding on to it for now."

Schulte expects the Alexandria area to have a very good harvest.

"We got that shot of rain and things are really looking good," he said.

Thune, who also made visits to Howard and Salem later in the day, has been making his way around the state during this month-long break from session in Washington, D.C. He said many people are expressing what he calls "pocketbook problems" with the government, and many of those are connected to ag issues in the state's small towns.

"People are aware of what the crops are looking like and what the yields are looking like and what the current prices are, which are depressed compared to what we've seen," Thune said.