• As Cargill begins to ship grain down the Mississippi River in the late 1940s, it explores valuable southern commodities to transport back north.
  • As vice president of Cargo Carriers, Ray King (second from left) decides that rock salt will make cost-efficient backhaul cargo.
  • To ensure a consistent supply, Cargill purchases Belle Isle, a salt mine on the Louisiana bayou. The first barge is loaded in December of 1962.
  • More sites open across the United States (and later, the globe), including this mine in New York, which today processes two million tons of road salt annually.

Barges bring salt business to the North

After the purchase of its first barge, Cargill’s salt business grows rapidly through smart acquisitions and product development.

From seasoning the food on your plate to keeping the roads you drive safe in winter, salt is an important, universal product, used day in and day out. Across North America, Cargill serves as a leading provider of salt in its many forms, bringing more than 1,000 products to market. Cargill’s salt business had a modest start. It began with the search for a material the company could use to fill up empty barges making return trips up the Mississippi River.

Known as backhauling, the practice makes use of barges that transport grain to the southern regions of the United States. In the past, barges returned north empty. Since nearly as much fuel and time were needed to make the return trip, whether the barge was loaded or empty, backhauling helped maximize hauling efficiency and created another revenue opportunity for Cargill. And in the case of salt, it gave rise to a new, highly profitable industry for the company.

In 1955, Ray King, vice president of Cargo Carriers, Cargill’s inland water transportation business, bought Cargill’s first barge-load of Louisiana rock salt for the trip back up the river. Though Cargill had been shipping grain down the Mississippi River since the late 1940s, finding cost-efficient backhaul cargo for the massive barges proved challenging. As it is today, rock salt was valuable to states in the northern United States that relied on salt to deice roads in the winter months. Though it took a year to sell that first load, the barge was the beginning of Cargill’s profitable salt business.

The backhaul salt business steadily grew, and by 1960, Cargill management was convinced that rock salt fit Cargill’s business model as a large-volume commodity, with low-cost production and marketing. The business embraced the logical, two-way movement of Cargill barges, with grain going down river and salt heading back north.

To continue building the salt business, the company purchased the rights to Belle Isle, a salt mine located in the Louisiana bayou that provided the constant, steady supply Cargill needed. The first barge of salt at Belle Isle was loaded on December 17, 1962.

Over the years, Cargill acquired a number of other salt production facilities, rock salt mines, evaporated salt plants and solar salt operations in cities across the US. Expansion continued, and in 1995, Cargill formed a joint venture to construct a solar salt facility in Venezuela. Two years later, the company’s salt business doubled in size when it acquired the North American assets of Akzo Nobel Salt, Inc. 

Piles of salt
With approximately 14 million tons of salt capacity, Cargill now brings a portfolio of over 1,000 different salt products to market.

Today, Cargill produces, packages and ships salt for use in products such as table salt, animal nutrition supplements, water softener and deicing products. Its extensive portfolio of products includes recognized brands consumers depend on, such as Diamond Crystal® and Champion’s Choice®. As the applications for salt expand and evolve, so do Cargill’s offerings. This continuous innovation ensures that the company meets ever-increasing customer demand.