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Colder temps and wet weather lead to propane shortage in Iowa

Colder temps and wet weather lead to propane shortage in Iowa
Propane tankers line up waiting to load near a terminal by Clear Lake. Submitted photo
By Kelly Terpstra,

Early mornings and long nights can result in what seem like endless shifts out in the field for farmers during harvest season.

For many who are running combines continuously from dusk until dawn, that may result in hardly any sleep at all.

“I went home one night in the last two weeks and slept in my bed for about four hours,” said farmer Randy Ellis, who also hauls propane for C.H. Wilson Transport in Charles City.

Ellis has been a busy man as of late.

A wet fall, colder temperatures and a late planting season due to a wet spring have created headaches for farmers who now need to dry their corn.

The result has been a run on propane, which has caused a shortage statewide.

Long lines of semi-trailers waiting to receive propane from ONEOK, a pipeline out of Clear Lake, have been the norm there in the last week, Ellis said.

“I had one load this weekend. I had 40 hours of wait time,” he said.

Ellis, who delivers LP (liquefied petroleum) gas to such retailers as Floyd County Ag, has been lucky if he can sneak in a catnap.

“I got maybe an hour’s sleep in the last 24 hours. We’re all out here running on pure adrenaline and that’s all we’ve got. But we can’t stop. We’ve got to keep going,” said Ellis. “We probably had two weeks now of hard running, waiting in line.”

Ellis farms 750 acres, so he understands the struggle in dealing with the wait times and sometimes having a limited supply of LP gas to dry crops to the right moisture level for sale or storage.

“A dryer takes about a third more LP to dry when it’s cold because it takes so long to heat,” said Ellis. “That’s put a lot of stress on the supply.”

The need for propane also increases when home users begin to fill tanks to heat their homes or farmers stock up to heat livestock buildings through the winter.

“The biggest thing is we’ve got so much livestock in our area – several hog buildings, lots of cattle industry, chickens, turkeys. Those demand a lot of propane now because they’re so congested and getting so big. Then you throw house heat in there – obviously that comes first,” said Ellis.

Elllis has hauled for the family-run transport company his wife co-owns for about five years. During that time he remembers propane shooting up to $5 a gallon during what was a national shortage.

“We were travelling to Texas and Oklahoma,” said Ellis.

Ellis said even before farmers were running hard out in the fields this year, the propane supply seemed low.

“They weren’t pushing it through the pipeline,” said Ellis. “Ever since then we’ve been living off the bottom of the tank.”

Erica Eastman, a secretary with Floyd County Ag, which joined with Farmers Feed and Grain out of Riceville in 2008, said the price of propane at their business has remained relatively steady at $1.25 per gallon. She said she has heard of $3 a gallon for LP gas in the area, though.

“Right now, we’re trying to keep everyone happy,” said Eastman. “We’re just rationing it so everyone can get some.”

Eastman said Floyd County Ag anticipated the wet weather so an effort was made to lock-in customers for contracts so their tanks were full. That made for plenty of summer fills.

“The summer fill is usually the low of the year and the lower the price. That’s when you get as much gallons in your tank as possible,” said Eastman.

Ellis said part of the problem is propane is considered a by-product and companies burn off the natural gas because it is not as valuable as butane and methane.

“They’re getting paid way more money to push butane though that same pipeline because it all goes through the same pipe. It’s a matter of shutting one off and pushing another through,” said Ellis.

ONEOK is a Tulsa, Oklahoma-based company that owns almost 2,500 miles of intrastate transmission pipelines.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds recently signed an emergency proclamation to help alleviate propane delivery problems that was enacted at the first this month and will run to the end of November. The executive order suspended provisions of Iowa law restricting the hours of service for crews and commercial drivers delivering propane.