Louisiana farmers have been informed that the Port Allen facility near Baton Rouge will not be accepting grain from this year’s wheat or fall harvests.

A year ago, companies were vying to sign a long-term lease to run the aging grain facility. As Port Allen is the first elevator along the Mississippi River where a ship can dock, the bidding process was fierce. It ended with Louis Dreyfus winning the lease while promising major infrastructure upgrades – up to $100 million worth -- to the state-owned enterprise.

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Those upgrades are the reason farmers will be forced to look at alternate storage or delivery options for their 2012 yields.

On Thursday morning, David Bollich, Commercial Manager at the facility, spoke with Farm Press about Dreyfus’ construction plans, river maintenance, and when grain will again be welcomed. Among his comments:

Can you bring us up to speed on plans for the Port Allen facility?

“Dreyfus took over the (Port Allen) facility last June. Cargill had run it through the wheat harvest and we were able to handle the fall harvest.

“Since then, we’ve been preparing for the construction that will take place. In fact, if you came by you’d see the activity has really ramped up. The permits are in place to do the work we need to do on the river. We’re taking the old dock out, the old ship-loader out, the old barge unloader out.

“This is all being done as promised. It’s all part of the lease agreement that Dreyfus agreed to and is now executing.

“The unfortunate thing is in order to renovate and upgrade to a truly modern export facility we’ve got to (take time on the construction). The construction will run throughout 2012 and into the early part of 2013. Then, we’ll put power back on and start doing business.”

Note: To follow the project’s progress, check www.ldcportallen.com.

What are the new things you’ll be putting in?

“The old spout-loading system used to load vessels will be replaced by a Buhler ship loader. This is state-of-the art.

“The barge unloader, which was really obsolete – an old marine leg – will be replaced with a Heyl Patterson barge unloader.

“A lot of what we’re putting in – which will cost in excess of $100 million in this first phase of construction – will be out on the water.

“We’ll also be replacing a lot of the grain conveyance: the belts, the drag, the elevator, things that move grain within the facility. Much of that – the guts of the place, the internal workings -- will be upgraded, as well.

“We’re putting in 500,000 bushels worth of shipping bins. That will increase efficiency in loading vessels. So, a lot of concrete is being poured.”

So, you’ll be ready for the 2013 wheat harvest?

“That’s what we anticipate. You hope everything goes as scheduled in construction. The main wild card is, of course, the river – high water is big fear.

“But, right now, things look good and we’re hopeful we’ll be ready to go by next wheat harvest. If that changes, we’ll communicate it to the farmers quickly – just as we’ve done as far as not being able to handle this year’s wheat harvest or the fall harvest.

“We realize that this is a great inconvenience for farmers. But I think they realize (the upgrade) must be done and it’ll benefit them and Dreyfus in the coming years. We’re just trying to get to the point where we’re an export facility again.”

On river maintenance and dredging…

“Right now, the river level won’t affect what we’ll be doing. You never know for sure, but the outlook for river stages appears favorable. Usually if there’s going to be high water it’ll show up about now.

“There isn’t a big snow pack in the upper Midwest, which is normally a huge contributor to a high river when it melts. That just isn’t there this year.

 “If there was high water it could affect the work we’re doing on the levee. The Corps of Engineers has certain requirements as far as work being done on the levee and high water can impact that.

“As for dredging, it’s an issue for anyone who moves anything via the river – grain, oil or coal, whatever. Last year, the high river led to a lot of shoaling and a lot of dredging has been going on recently, mainly down by the passes. But it’s also going on in a few places between (Port Allen) and New Orleans.

“Dredging is critical – not only for the U.S. grain business but for some many industries. I’m confident the Corps will continue to keep the deep-water drafts open and funding for that will be found.”

Anything else?

“To reiterate: our goal is to be accepting Louisiana grain production as soon as possible. Right now, the river looks pretty good and we’re geared up to build. There are probably half a dozen cranes around here and things are starting to rev up. We’re very happy about that.”