As a baking technologist, the majority of my time in the field is spent working with customers in their bakeries, converting our flour into delicious bakery products. I have to admit, I didn’t often reflect on how the wheat, which was used to mill the flour, moved from the wheat field to the mill. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve spent 25 years trying to understand and correlate the relationship between wheat quality and flour quality, but little of that time was contemplating the logistical challenges of the farmer or the railroad. That is, until I had an opportunity to visit a grain elevator in North Dakota. It was a balmy -1°F with wind chills that made me long for my Wichita winters.
A grain elevator is a complex of concrete or steel grain bins (also called silos or tanks) and numerous augers and conveyors. These conveyors lift or elevate grain from ground level up to the top of the bins—thus the name elevator. In a nutshell, elevators function to transfer grain from the farmer’s truck to the bin, store it, blend it if necessary and then transfer it to a railcar for delivery.
Wheat is the grain most widely handled by elevators, although they also unload, store and ship soybeans, corn, rye, and many other cereal grains and seeds. Elevators serve a vital function that allows farmers to sell their wheat and other crops into the global grain system.
Each farming community had at least one small grain elevator that served the local farmer. However, consolidation, in both farming and grain elevator co-ops, has led to fewer, but much larger elevators. Whereas a local elevator may have received grain within a 20-40 mile radius, today the draw area may now span 100-150 miles and include thousands of farmers.
Now, back to the North Dakota elevator. It all begins when the truck arrives at the elevator loaded with grain. Most elevators receive grain via truck and ship via train. The truck is probed to obtain a sample (often multiple locations within the truck). The sample is tested before the wheat is unloaded. Test results will determine which bin the grain will be stored in. The wheat class is identified and testing includes at a minimum, moisture, protein, test weight and dockage. Other tests or physical inspections may also be conducted. Once testing is completed the wheat is unloaded into the ‘pit’ and is binned based on the test results. The driver is provided a receipt showing how much grain was unloaded along with the grade and quality of the wheat. The analysis helps determine the price the farmer will receive for the grain.
An important service an elevator can provide is blending. By identifying and binning wheats with similar protein and quality characteristics, they can then blend those wheats to provide a more consistent supply to the flour mill or export markets. It all starts with wheat quality, and it has to be consistent. There is only so much that the milling process can do to influence the quality of the flour produced.
Braving the sub-zero wind chills, the co-op team loaded a 100-car train that spanned nearly a mile long. Each rail car holds about 3,500 bushels of wheat. This particular elevator loaded a rail car in as little as six minutes. That’s over 10 bushels per second. Once loaded, it was on its way to the west coast.
If you get the chance, visit a grain elevator. It will give you a great appreciation for the sheer size, scope and complexity of the US wheat supply chain, and for the American farmer and the elevators that bring his wheat to market.