The American Society of Civil Engineers has called it one of the “Seven Wonders of the Modern World”—and this summer, the Panama Canal became even more wonderful.
That’s because a $5-billion expansion, built over the last decade, has put this century-old waterway in a position to double the amount of shipping traffic it can handle.
Why does this matter to a farmer like me, in south central Wisconsin?
You might think I have more immediate concerns. Our family has farmed this land for 150 years, which means our farm was well established by the time the Panama Canal opened in 1914. Right now, we need to worry about this year’s harvest of corn, soybeans, and wheat and hope that the Green Bay Packers beat the Detroit Lions on Sunday.
Yet we also depend on this critical passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Without it, American farmers would have a much harder time exporting what we grow to the rest of the world.
I had a chance to visit the Panama Canal last month as a part of the United Soybean Board’s “See For Yourself” program. It aims to showcase investments made through the soybean checkoff, a voluntary system in which farmers contribute a small percentage of their earnings to research and marketing.
I’d seen the Panama Canal before, but this was my first chance to observe the shipping lanes that can accommodate a new generation of massive container ships.
The new locks operate differently. Tugboats now pull the big ships through, in a job that used to involve land-based rails. Less noticeable is a water-recycling system that marks an important environmental improvement.
The biggest change, however, involves the size of the ships. Until recently, the Panama Canal could transport a vessel that carried about 5,000 containers, each one a metal box 20-feet long and about eight-and-a-half feet tall. Those containers may be carrying soybeans from our farm to the Asia-Pacific, and most likely carrying the newest electronics, clothing, toys for holiday sales or even the rock salt needed for icy winter roads back to the U.S.
A ship of this size goes by the name “Panamax” because, until recently, it represented the maximum cargo capacity of a ship that could travel through the Panama Canal. On a previous tour of the canal, I watched one of these sea monsters squeeze through a lock—and I heard it scraping against the side, chipping off concrete. That’s when I knew the Panama Canal needed an update.
It also needed an upgrade: We now have the “New Panamax” ships. They can carry as many as 13,000 containers—and their advent is what made the canal’s expansion urgently necessary.
Most American farmers never get to see the Panama Canal, but many of us rely on it: About half of the soybeans and one-third of the corn grown in the United States ships abroad. On our farm, we specialize in high-value, identity preserved soybeans that go into traditional Asian foods such as tofu, natto, miso, and tempeh. Our biggest customers are China, Japan, South Korea, and Indonesia.
Getting our soybeans halfway around the world requires a modern system of infrastructure, from roads, rails, and rivers in the heartland to ports on our coasts. Outside our borders, the expanded Panama Canal provides a big boost: The amount of U.S. soybeans shipping through it will grow by 43 percent between 2010 and 2021, according to the Soy Transportation Coalition. The improved efficiency also means that we’ll make more money per bushel.
That’s good for farmers—and it benefits all Americans, correcting our country’s trade imbalance and representing an all-too-rare bright spot in our slow-growth economy.
Unfortunately, our job is far from done. The improvements at the Panama Canal stand in contrast to deficiencies here at home. Our own system of locks and dams, on the Mississippi River and elsewhere, desperately needs renovation. Deferred maintenance on our inland waterways costs the soybean and grain industries more than $100 million annually, according to one estimate.
If a single lock were to fail this fall, we’d suffer a hard blow. At a time of already-low commodity prices, this would threaten to force some farmers out of business.
So as we marvel at the Panama Canal, let’s not forget the pressing need to improve America’s own crumbling infrastructure. We don’t need to make it a wonder of the world, but we do need to make it better.