Giant wheat piles: How do those work?

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The drive from Walla Walla to Pasco has become pretty routine for a great many folks in this Valley. I’ve made it more times than I can remember.

Yet, I always take a peek at the wheat piles on the ground to the north of U.S. Highway 12 near the Pasco side of the Snake River bridge. The two piles of wheat that grow and shrink throughout the year are interesting and curious to me.

While I often follow the 5-second rule when it comes to eating hard, dry food dropped on the floor — depending on the state of the floor (and wet food goes straight to the trash even if the floor sparkles) — I’m not keen on the idea of storing food on the ground.

Doesn’t the wheat get dirty and wet? Don’t bugs get fat and sassy gorging themselves on the grain? Don’t rodents go wild stuffing themselves with the golden kernels?

What’s up with that?

When I checked in with Chris Peha, manager of Northwest Grain Growers my questions — and concerns — were answered.

Grain Growers, a Walla Walla-based operation that buys and sells the wheat it stores, has it covered — literally.

The two piles in Pasco aren’t under Peha’s watch, but there are four similar places in the Walla Walla Valley where the wheat is piled just as high. They are at Wallula, Prescott, Sheffler and Spofford.

First, the wheat is not piled on the ground. It is stored on a huge concrete slab, Peha said. (Whew, feeling better already.)

The ground storage is used for huge amounts of wheat because it’s more cost effective than building more grain elevators. The capacity of a ground-storage site is a million bushels of wheat, about 60 million pounds. That giant pile is then covered with an equally giant tarp. The cost of covering the pile is 1.5 cents a bushel or $15,000 for the million-bushel pile. The tarp, Peha said, is for one-time use.

About 16 million bushels of wheat are grown in the county annually. About half of that wheat is immediately sold and shipped off. The rest is stored in grain elevators or on the ground, where it can be kept for more than a year.

During wheat harvest in July, farmers bring their crops to grain elevators to be weighed and tested. It takes about a day and a half for Grain Grower crews to seal a pile so it will remain ready for market.

Once the cover has been put on, a lot of large fans are used at the base to pull the tarp down and keep bugs, such as weevils out, Peha said.

The wheat is sealed in tight and rodents don’t get in, Peha said. And rodents and other critters don’t have much success getting to the piles of wheat before they are sealed, mostly due to the whirl of activity. (Another comforting bit of information.)

Farmers opt to store their wheat rather than sell it immediately so they can (they hope) get a better price at a later date. It’s a bit like the stock market in that the price of a bushel of wheat goes up or down daily.

Wheat growers take their crop to grain elevators where it is weighed and tested for moisture and weeds. The weight is adjusted for moisture and weeds and the farmer is credited with the amount of wheat to be stored. The wheat from various farmers is commingled just as the Benjamins, Lincolns and Washingtons are all stored in the same vault at the bank.

Northwest Grain Growers charges a storage fee and a selling fee when the farmer opts to cash in his grain.

But when the farmer sells the wheat it doesn’t go straight to market just then, Peha said. That wheat is purchased by Grain Growers at the market price. Its management then decides when to sell to optimize profit.

When smaller quantities of wheat are sold they are taken from the various grain elevators. But when it’s time to move a mega order the pile is uncovered and loaded.

Typically, Peha said, Northwest Grain Growers sells a million bushels of wheat for January delivery. The wheat is either shipped by barge on the Snake and Columbia rivers or by rail.

It takes about two weeks to get it all loaded and the slab swept clean so it will be ready for a million bushels of wheat next year.

Rick Eskil can be reached at rickeskil@wwub.com or 509-526-8309. If you, too, wonder what’s up with that, let Eskil know about it and maybe he can find out.

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