As snow fell and temperatures plunged Monday, energy demands from farmers trying to dry corn and homeowners firing up their furnaces kept delivery trucks on the road and liquid-propane providers juggling customer demands.
“Our drivers have been very busy delivering to dryers. We’ve just switched to residential today. Depending on what the middle of the week brings, we might be back to dryers,” said Sherri Farrell, who works in the LP department at Farrell’s Inc. in Preston, which also provides feed, grain and trucking services.
“Our driver has been working all weekend,” Farrell said. “There are a lot of houses and a lot of dryers to do.”
Calls to many local LP providers found delivery drivers out on the road for long hours and customer service representatives working with clients to meet an unseasonably high demand driven by what experts are calling a perfect storm.
A wet spring delayed planting. A wet fall delayed harvest, and corn coming out of the fields is wetter than usual and needs to be dried. The onset of frigid temperatures increased demand for LP to heat barns housing animals and homes.
“It’s unbelievable that all these things are hitting at once,” said Deb Grooms, CEO of the Iowa Propane Association in Des Moines.
Propane supply issues are less about shortage and more about transportation issues, she explained, adding that limits exist on the safe transportation of propane from supply points, as well as limits on pipeline capacity.
“Getting the LP from the pipeline to where it’s needed at the same time many Midwestern states are harvesting corn is proving challenging,” she said. “In a normal year, there is a more gradual harvest moving from south to north, but, according to reports, multiple states are harvesting at the same time and more drying is needed for the crop, requiring more propane.”
Devin Sires, a regional sales manager for River Valley Cooperative, agreed.
“On paper, there is an ample supply of propane. The tough thing about it is everyone needs it at once,” he said.
The corn is harder to dry this year, and the dryers have to run hotter to get the job done, he said. Home furnaces are burning more fuel, as well.
“This time of year temperatures are usually in the 40s and 50s. And now we are seeing them in the teens and low 20s and even colder,” Sires said. “Any time you have animal buildings, they’re burning more to keep animals at comfortable temperatures.”
Doug Dall, an area manager for AgVantage, FS, a division of Growmark, said with the cold snap getting fuel to homes takes precedence, with keeping livestock warm coming in second, although everyone recognizes the importance of farmers being able to dry grain.
“Our message to our drivers is they need to prioritize,” Dall said.
For AgVantage, River Valley, Farrell’s and other providers, customers who have locked in contracts get priority. But all providers report getting calls from people asking about LP availability. The businesses also need to manage their own stored supplies.
“Suppliers are rationing so everybody gets some. You can’t really shut off residential heating. Some things will take priority over corn drying,” said Charles Hurburgh, a professor in Iowa State University’s Department of Agriculture and Biosystems Engineering.
Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a proclamation on Nov. 1 temporarily suspending certain regulatory provisions pertaining to hours of service for the delivery of propane. The proclamation will expire at midnight Nov. 30.
As of last week, 43 percent of the corn crop had been harvested for grain, eight days behind last year and 11 days behind the five-year average, according to the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.