Abandoned in the Heartland

It is always fun to come across photographic gems in the countryside. Tonight as I was making my way to a meeting in Carroll I came across this old car not far off of a county road. I pulled over jumped out and started taking photos of the car while trying to work the brilliant sky into the picture.

An abandoned car rests on the open prairie ground of northwest Iowa.

An abandoned car rests on the open prairie ground of northwest Iowa.

Within five minutes of starting to take photos a car pulled up with an older lady and her son. I stepped over to the car and told them good evening. They were inquisitive to what I was doing and I answered that I happened to see the car and I was taking photos. That's when the woman told me and son confirmed that they were the owners of the old car. They told me it was a 1941 Ford Super Deluxe that didn't work for years so they left it there to wither away on a hillside in western Iowa. They also told me that the car had a twin that was in mint condition in a neighboring town.

Golden rails

A fitting find today while driving home from an assignment in North Iowa. Today I celebrated my dad's birthday although we lost him several years ago. Trains have been in my family for many generations and my father chased trains as a hobby. His hobby of photographing trains led me to my career as a photojournalist. Little signs always make me smile!

The sun illuminates railroad tracks in southern Iowa.

The sun illuminates railroad tracks in southern Iowa.

Panama - For richer or poorer

Wealth and poverty. It is all on display in the small Central American country of Panama. During a recent trip to see the Panama Canal and gauge the progress of its expansion, wealth and poverty were the stark contrasts, a situation that is shared by many other Latin American countries.

The flight into Panama City reveals what most wouldn’t expect in Central and South America. Skyscrapers and a bustling modern metropolitan area. A tour guide boasted that Panama City has 109 skyscrapers — more than other major South American cities like Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It even has more skyscrapers than Los Angeles, Seattle, Miami, and Houston. But like many cities, the gleam of the skyscrapers doesn't always illuminate the struggles that are happening on the streets below.

The main economic driver of the country is the canal — a system of locks that have allowed large ships to navigate a north and south route stretching 51 miles through Panama safely. The route that shaves time and saves money for precious cargo. For instance, ships sailing from New York to San Francisco can save 7,872 miles instead of going around Cape Horn in South America.

Much of the cargo is either destined for or originates from the United States. In fact, 70 percent of the cargo passing through the canal falls in that category.

It is often said that money breeds money and in Panama's case that is just the beginning. The 109 skyscrapers are a result of foreign investments in the country since Manuel Noriega’s dictatorship ended in 1989 and the Panama-U.S. Free Trade Agreement was signed in 2012. More than 100 branches of multinational enterprises including Caterpillar, BASF, Philips, Adidas and Trump International call the country home.

But life stays stagnant for the people in the shadows of the skyscrapers. Neighborhoods near Casco Viejo, the historical beginning of Panama City founded by the Spanish in 1673, can’t hide the poverty that is prevalent. It's a place that is optimistic for change but content with life. In many ways the situation of the people mirrors the geography of their neighborhoods. Stuck between the old city center of Panama and the booming skyscrapers across the bay. With wealth just out of reach.


What will help the poorest of the poor in Panama? The outside fortunes of investments continue to help, and a stable government with leaders that are focused on helping all citizens of Panama can go a long way. As I watched shipments of grain pass through the locks of the Panama Canal, I know that the American farmer is doing their part by utilizing the waterway to move their 600 million bushels of soybeans every year.

The toll money paid to the Panamanians for the service of the canal continues to churn a democratic economy that is lately turning its attention to not only expanding the canal for the future but also to helping citizens that have yet to see the benefits of the strong economy. With the more than $5.25 billion investment for the expansion of the canal, the Panamanian government has also dedicated money to improve conditions in provinces like Colon that have seen economic declines and rising poverty for much of the past 50 years. Colon is the port and canal entrance on the Caribbean or Atlantic side of Panama. The area is part of a massive restoration project that began in 2014. The focus is in restoring historic buildings, roads, parks and building housing.

There’s economic evidence that things are getting better for the citizens of Panama. According to Trading Economics, the unemployment rate decreased to 2.50 percent in 2015 from 4.10 percent in 2013. The highest recorded rate was at 16.30 percent during the time period between 1982 and 2015.

Will the light of Panama's economy shine through the shadows and illuminate the country? If the successful expansion of the canal is an indication Panama's economy will continue to thrive and so will their democracy. With some experts predicting unemployment rates trending around 2.06 percent in 2020. The combination of the expanded canal as an economic driver and low unemployment rates will help all of Panama's citizens enjoy the wealth it creates.

Originally published for the Iowa Soybean Association

Panama Canal expansion ready for 2016

By Joseph L. Murphy

A U.S. destroyer and grain ship are pulled through the final locks of the Panama Canal. The expansion canal is ready to begin operations in 2016. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy)

A U.S. destroyer and grain ship are pulled through the final locks of the Panama Canal. The expansion canal is ready to begin operations in 2016. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy)

Information about the Panama Canal expansion took center stage during the Soy Transportation Coalition (STC) meeting in Panama this week. About 100 farmers, state soybean staff members, and others were able to get a briefing from canal officials about the progress of the vital shipping route for U.S. soybean farmers.

Ilya Espinoza De Marotta, the executive vice president of engineering and program administration with the Panama Canal Authority, told the group that April 2016 is still the expected completion date for the new expanded canal channel. The channel will enhance a system of locks that have been in place since 1914.

Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, told those attending the STC board meeting and the tour of the canal that it is important for farmers to see the canal first-hand.

“Farmers need to be acquainted with, knowledgeable and passionate about, not only the supply side of their business, but demand side as well. They need to be just as passionate about the connectivity between supply and demand,” Steenhoek said. “That’s what transportation is. That linkage or connectivity is the system of roads, bridges, highways, ports, inland waterways, railway systems and includes the Panama Canal.”

He went on to say that 600 million bushels of soybeans travel through the Panama Canal annually, making it the No. 1 U.S. commodity moving through the canal. Grains make up the largest cargo by commodity moving through the canal with petroleum and container cargo rounding out the top three according to numbers released by the Panama Canal Authority.

Those numbers are expected to increase once the canal expansion is completed. Canal officials told the group they expect the total volume of goods transported to double once the expansion project is complete.

“Currently, 70 percent of shipments through the canal either originate or are destined for the U.S.,” De Marotta said.

Ed Ulch, an STC board member and Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) director, also attended the meeting. He agreed with Steenhoek that it’s important for farmers to see the canal.

“This (the Panama Canal) is one link of the transportation chain, and we aren’t going to be able to take advantage of this unless we hold up our end of the bargain, so to speak,” Ulch said. “We need to do the things needed in the Gulf to be able to accommodate the big ships and the larger loads to be more efficient.”

Karey Claghorn, ISA chief operations officer, has visited the canal several times and echoed the importance of the waterway for farmers. During this trip, she was also able to see the importance of the canal when it comes to national security.

“In my opinion, food security is an important part of national security so the canal is critical to move products around the world,” Claghorn said. “But to see the Navy warship move through the canal, we also see the importance the canal plays in getting our military around the world in an efficient way.”

Originally published for the Iowa Soybean Association. Find more great stories at: www.iasoybeans.com/news



Record harvest not expected to stress rail transportation

Rail service in the face of a record-setting harvest is up to the challenge according to industry experts. Recent upgrades to rail service combined with soft commodity prices should allow the flow of soybeans and corn from the Midwest to export destinations on the coasts.

The sun dips towards the horizon creating reflections off of rails near Independence, Iowa. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy)

The sun dips towards the horizon creating reflections off of rails near Independence, Iowa. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy)

“We expect rail service to be good for the 2015 harvest,” Mike Steenhoek, the executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, said. “Railroads have invested vigorously over the past year, so they have responded to demand.”

Congestion and delays in previous years are believed to be relieved this year because of several factors. The top seven rail carriers have made infrastructure improvements over the past year, and a drop in petroleum production means less traffic on the rail lines according to Steenhoek.

“Union Pacific plans to spend $4.2 billion on capital investments this year. Of that, we expect to spend about $1.85 billion for infrastructure replacement,” Kristen South of Union Pacific said. “As part of our business planning process, we continuously evaluate how projected volumes fit within the confines of network capacity and make corresponding adjustments to our capital plan as volume and returns dictate.”

South went on to say that Union Pacific is expecting a muted peak season but are ready for the demand if market forces change.

“We have more than 2,000 covered hoppers in storage available to meet unanticipated surges in equipment needs for grain,” She said.

The stronger U.S. dollar and softening export markets have also removed pressure from rail service according to Steenhoek.

“Farmers are holding on to their grain so we are expecting much of the 2015 crop will be stored,” he said. “That means they will impose less of it on the rail network, and they will have adequate capacity to handle what comes their way.”

Originally published for the Iowa Soybean Association. Find more great stories at: www.iasoybeans.com/news