Thursday, June 24, 2010

More Amber Waves of Grain

Funny how things that are so familiar to one person can be so totally unfamiliar to another.  I grew up around grain elevators - my father and grandfather both worked there - and Dave has been in the grain business since 1983, so the inner workings of an elevator are second nature to me.  After yesterday's post about wheat harvest here in Kansas, I got several questions and comments via Twitter and the blog, from people who are not connected with agriculture at all, or at least not the elevator section of it, so I have decided to write a series of posts over the next couple of weeks highlighting different aspects of our life during harvest.

For starters, the picture above is the largest of the three facilities Dave manages.  Each cylinder is a separate bin that can hold 25,000 bushels of grain. There are some larger bins on the back side which hold 100,000 bushels each, for a total storage capacity of 1.8 million bushels.  The other two locations hold 1.3 and .8 million bushels.  To give you a little perspective on size, the small dark square at the bottom center of the picture is the driveway where semi trucks enter to unload. 

Here's the basic layout: trucks weigh-in at the office, then drive out to the elevator where they unload the grain into a "pit" under the driveway.  From the pit, the leg - a vertical conveyor belt with buckets attached - scoops up the grain and carries it to the top or "head house" (the tall, rectangular portion way above the driveway).  Thus we get the name of the beast - the leg "elevates" the grain to the top of the bins.  From the head house it empties onto a horizontal conveyor belt.  This belt runs the length of the "galley" (the narrow square section on top of the round bins that doesn't show up much in this picture) and carries the grain to the selected bin.  There's a series of gizmos, whats-its, and do-hickies along the way that make all this possible, but you don't really need to know those details to get the basic idea.  All you really need to know is, when the grain reaches the bin, it falls into the opening at the top and all the way back to the bottom, or at least to the level of the grain that's already in there.  At a later point, the grain will exit through the bottom of the bin onto another belt and into a truck or train, but we'll get to that another day.  This is harvest.  At this point we're only concerned about what's coming in.

When the truck is empty, the driver returns to the office to weigh again.  Basic math tells us the difference between the full weight and the empty weight is the amount of grain dumped.  A standard bushel of wheat weighs sixty pounds, so divide the difference by sixy and you have the number of bushels dumped.  A semi holds one-thousand bushels (give or take) and wheat is currently going for approximately $3.50/bushel - so each truck represents about $3500 to the farmer.  The farmer can choose to sell immediately or store his wheat while he waits for the price to go up.  In the mean time, he pays the elevator a storage fee.

The process of dumping a truck into the pit takes 10-15 minutes.  During the heat of harvest the trucks form a line along the edge of the highway while waiting for their turn on the scales, a line between the office and elevator, and another line of empty trucks coming back to the scales.  The person in the office is the traffic cop - forcing everyone to take turns by using traffic lights, loud horns, or both.  When I drove past after work yesterday, there were eighteen trucks in one line or another.  You can see why the guys will stay all night to fix a mechanical failure if necessary.  They can't afford to shut down for an hour during the day for repairs.  This controlled chaos of tractor/trailors is loud, kicks up a lot of dust, and is potentially dangerous.  Mothers know to forbid bicycle riding near the elevator during harvest, and even weaving through the pandemonium in a car can be hazardous.  

One final point about the inner workings.  Amongst all the gizmos and whatz-its is a little cage, approximately 6 1/2 feet tall and 2 1/2 ft. squre, called a "man lift".  Yes, it's exactly what you think - an itty bitty elevator within an elevator.  You stand in the cage, close the door and push the button and the lift takes you through a concrete tube slightly larger than the cage, to the top.  The hitch in this ride is that the cage is made of open-mesh metal so you can see out in all directions.  There's nothing to look at out the sides except the concrete walls of the tube and the escape ladder.  Yes, if the lift gets stuck for any reason, you must open the door and climb up or down via a ladder bolted to the wall.  There's also not much to see looking up except the cable and pully that hold your life in the balance.  Looking down, however, there is a LOT to see - yards and yards of empty space between you and the concrete floor far, far below.  You're probably catching on that I don't like heights, so this is not my favorite place to go.  And, yes, the man lift is tested and inspected on a regular basis just like any elevator, but that doesn't make me feel better.

Last summer we sat outside on top of one of the bins to watch the 4th of July fireworks display.   Dave assured me it is perfectly safe, as there is at least 10 ft. of rooftop between you and the edge of the bin, and there is a guard rail, but all I could do was plaster myself against the wall and ponder the distance to the ground.  This year, I'm watching from the bleachers like everyone else.

Well folks, that's our lesson in Elevator Operations 101 for today.  Over the next few weeks we'll learn more about life as "the elevator guy's wife."


  1. Thanks for posting this. It was really interesting.

    I'm a city girl with only a vague understanding of how elevators works, so this was a big help. We recently moved to a rural area and pass by them all the time. Now I have a better understanding of what goes on there.

    I look forward to your next installment.

  2. I agree - quite interesting. I felt like Mike Rowe from "Dirty Jobs" was giving me a personal tour!

    And I would so be all over that vantage point for fireworks. Other than seeing them from the air in a plane or balloon, being perched up high on a roof is my ideal place for watching them! I would totally wave to you down below though ;0)

  3. I like this Elevator 101. So interesting. I had no idea it was so complicated. I'm shocked at the price of wheat. Since most good bread costs about that much I can see the farmer isn't paid well.