The long reach of last summer's devastating U.S. drought has reversed the flow of the mighty Mississippi River - for corn, at least, with grain-laden barges beginning the rare movement north to Midwest ethanol plants from southern farms.
The shipments come as the U.S. faces a 17-year low in corn supplies by the end of the month due to the historic drought, which slashed harvests and sent grain prices to record highs a year ago.
The tight supply is upending the country's tradition-bound agricultural economy, which is holding its breath in the weeks before an expected record harvest begins some time next month following a wet spring and summer.
Grain, which typically flows south on the river to export markets, is heading north from states like Louisiana and Arkansas, where farmers begin harvesting earlier than their Midwestern counterparts. Normally, much of that grain would ship overseas, but after prices climbed following the drought, exports are set to drop to a 41-year low.
Ocean-going vessels are reversing course, too, with record U.S. grain imports expected from countries like Brazil and Canada as U.S. processors like Ingredion and Pilgrim's Pride seek cheaper corn.
"What's really changing here is the flow of corn," said Brent Baker, a vice president for John Stewart & Associates, a trading firm. "This is unprecedented."
The 2013 corn crop is expected to come in at a record 13.8 billion bushels, up 28 percent from last year. If that happens, supplies will build to an eight-year high, making the famine-to-feast reversal the largest annual swing in more than half a century.
But even with a big harvest coming, Mother Nature has added a unique twist: A historically wet spring delayed planting by weeks, and cool wet weather that followed means farmers expect a delayed harvest.
Instead of drought, this year farmers are worried about an early frost that could wipe out their crops--a new anomaly that would delay a return to normalcy for the farm economy.
"A lot of strange things happen after a drought that has a severity to be the worst one in 80 years," said Rodney Weinzierl, executive director for the Illinois Corn Marketing Board.
Roughly 1,000 barges carrying newly harvested southern corn will likely travel north by mid September, according to Baker. A barge trader interviewed by Reuters confirmed that estimate, which would be up about ten-fold from last year.
Demand is intense as Midwest ethanol producers and processors do not expect local farmers to harvest much corn until early October, weeks later than usual.