Energy independence. Foreign trade deficits. The future of rural America. Feeding a hungry world.

These and other themes were frequently articulated by the cavalcade of visiting presidential candidates in the weeks preceding the Iowa caucuses.

Though much rhetoric was devoted to highlighting these and other challenges, less attention was devoted to highlighting how the Iowa soybean farmer is essential to ensuring that many of these challenges are addressed. Whether processing soybeans into biodiesel, exporting feed to the poultry and livestock industries in other countries, or exporting high-protein food for malnourished populations, the Iowa soybean farmer is a conduit for achieving many of our nation's most lofty goals.

Iowa farmers can grow the highest-quality soybeans in the world, and these soybeans can be processed into valuable products for domestic and international sale. However, an underappreciated reality poses a concern for not only Iowa agriculture, but also our entire economy: Our nation's transportation infrastructure, or lack thereof, is increasingly an obstacle to profitability and competitiveness.

The soybean industry, in particular, and agriculture, in general, have increasingly been confronted with the dual challenges of rising costs and declining service when transporting products to customers. This is largely due to the fact that our nation is not making the needed investments in transportation to keep pace with the demands placed upon it.

Because of this concern, the Soy Transportation Coalition was recently established by the Iowa Soybean Association, six other state soybean councils and other industry leaders. The primary goal of the STC is to position the soybean industry to benefit from a transportation system that delivers cost-effective, reliable and competitive service.

Farmers need an extensive and well-maintained road system to deliver soybeans and other commodities to country elevators or processors. In 2006, the value of the Iowa soybean crop was $3.18 billion. Though our transportation decisions will always be primarily governed by the need to move people, we cannot ignore the importance of moving freight or, to put it another way, moving economic value when constructing and maintaining our road system.

Our rail network and our interior waterways are the most efficient modes for moving soybeans and other freight and are in need of improvement. A train is capable of transporting a ton of freight 387 miles on a single gallon of fuel. Barges are capable of 500 miles. Trucks, in comparison, can transport a ton of freight only 50 miles on a gallon of fuel. Directing investment toward our rail network and the locks and dams on our rivers must be embraced. We also should be less willing to abandon our railroad right of ways. It is much easier to maintain infrastructure than it is to create infrastructure.

Much indeed rests on the shoulders of the Iowa soybean farmers. May our communities, our state and our nation respond by ensuring that our transportation decisions work for them and not against them.

Mike Steenhoek is executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition.