EVEN though harvest season is months away, the Minnesota Corn Growers Assn. (MCGA) is encouraging farmers to plan ahead for their propane needs this fall and winter.
Last winter, farmers and homeowners were hit hard by a propane shortage caused by a multitude of factors, including subzero temperatures, record propane exports and the closing of the Cochin pipeline. MCGA staff members have been meeting with industry representatives and state agencies to work on strategies for preventing a similar shortage this winter.
"It's absolutely essential that farmers plan ahead for their propane needs," MCGA president Ryan Buck said. "There's a good chance that the days of having propane delivered as you need it during harvest — something farmers used to do before last year — are over for the foreseeable future."
Buck emphasized that farmers need to be ready for another shortage, especially if the U.S. experiences another wet fall and colder-than-normal winter.
"As best you can, address your anticipated propane needs for the fall harvest right now. I know that's difficult since we have no idea how wet this year's crop will be, but we need to be thinking about it," he said.
Farmers needed more propane than usual for drying last year because the corn crop was wetter than normal, something that happens about once every five years. However, reasons for the shortage extended well beyond a wet corn crop.
"We've had wet corn years in the past, but we've never seen a propane shortage like what we experienced last winter," Buck said.
The Cochin pipeline had supplied 36% of Minnesota's propane but was out of service for several weeks last winter and now carries oil from Canada's tar sands instead of propane.
Because of this, rail demand for propane delivery has also spiked dramatically. Some estimates peg the number of railcars necessary to meet Minnesota's propane demand rising from 200 cars to 4,200 per year after the rerouting of the Cochin pipeline. Furthermore, bad winter weather significantly slows down rail service.
Additionally, more propane is being exported to other countries than ever before. According to the Energy Information Administration, propane exports rose to 410,000 barrels per day in November — the highest ever — and remained high throughout the winter months.
MCGA also submitted a letter asking the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to temporarily vary its rules and allow several proposed large propane storage units to be built to help increase storage capacity and better meet demand from farmers, homeowners and businesses heading into the winter. Currently, the permit approval process for building a storage tank can take up to a year.