Co-op's Huge Riverside Terminal
by George Plaven
The McNary terminal, located just above McNary Dam in the Port of Umatilla, allows the co-op to blend
different varieties of wheat into one package for customers, and load the product onto barges.
UMATILLA, Ore. -- A loaded semi-trailer pulls up to the Pendleton Grain Growers McNary Elevator on the banks of the Columbia River, hauling nearly 35 tons of freshly harvested wheat.
The cargo is dumped over a grated pit that drops down into the bowels of the concrete facility. From there, conveyor belts lift the crop 200 feet into large storage silos, ready and available to exporters.
With Eastern Oregon's wheat harvest in full swing, PGG is storing grain at a fast clip to sell overseas. The McNary terminal, located just above McNary Dam in the Port of Umatilla, allows the co-op to blend different varieties of wheat into one package for customers, and load the product onto barges.
The vast majority of soft white wheat grown in the Pacific Northwest is exported to countries in Asia, including Japan and South Korea. Soft white wheat is low in protein, making it ideal for products such as noodles and cakes.
Umatilla County grows by far the most wheat in Oregon, anywhere from 14-22 million bushels per year. PGG usually handles 12-13 million bushels through its 1,850 members in Eastern Oregon and Washington.
Of that total, about 90 percent of members' wheat is shipped out of McNary, said Jason Middleton, PGG's director of grain operations. Built in the 1960s, the terminal is capable of storing 6.6 million bushels at any given time.
"It definitely gives us capacity at the river, which is where we want a majority of our wheat to land," Middleton said.
After harvest, Middleton said it is up to the farmer if they want to sell their wheat to the co-op right away, or wait until later in one of PGG's 14 elevators. The pace of exporting is driven by a number of variables in marketing and price, Middleton said.
Right now, members are facing a double-whammy of difficulty. Three straight years of hot, dry weather are expected to cut into most yields, while the price of wheat is down 23 percent -- at $5.82 per bushel -- compared to a year ago.
Activity hummed at McNary Thursday afternoon as truck after truck arrived for delivery. The elevator can easily handle up to 300 trucks per day, Middleton said, each carrying approximately 1,150 bushels.
Tiny kernels whoosh and rattle their way down the pit and up the conveyor system, while superintendent Adam Bergstrom mans the controls. He is responsible for knowing what type of grain comes in on every truck, and which container it needs to go to avoid accidental mixing.
Middleton works with exporters to sell a certain package of wheat to Asian millers. Once the deal is signed, it's up to Bergstrom to make sure that specific product makes it onto the barge.
"What he decides to put on paper, I have to put on an actual barge," Bergstrom said.
Bergstrom is also in charge of worker safety, no small task at such a large elevator. Dust from the grain can potentially be explosive given an ignition source, and working in tight spaces increases the risk of falls.
McNary does have a dust mitigation system, Middleton said, to reduce the danger of an explosion.
"Once that stuff gets airborne, it's like a bomb," he said.
The grain industry has come a long way from its history of wooden elevators, Middleton said, to metal and concrete structures used today. The McNary terminal gives PGG members added strength and durability for storage.
"This is like something you'd see down on the Willamette that an exporter would operate," Middleton said.
Rick Jacobson, PGG's general manager, said McNary Elevator was built with money borrowed from the Farm Credit System and is the co-op's "crown jewel.
"It's a great story, when you think about what a co-op system can do," Jacobson said.
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