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Future Uncertain for County's Last Elevator

by Jamie Henneman
Capital Press, August 13, 2010

Elevator's volume declines as growers seek other crops

KETTLE FALLS, Wash. -- This summer Dan Aldous will put on a respirator mask, a pair of gloves and tuck his overalls into his boots to do a job as dangerous as sitting next to dynamite.

Aldous helps load the grain elevator in the small town of Kettle Falls. In it, the grain dust can produce an explosive power 10 times that of dynamite.

The potential for the concrete silo to go up in a cloud of smoke is one of the reasons grain elevators in Washington state must be bonded.

The farmers' grain needs to be covered against loss in the event of an explosion or spoilage.

The Kettle Falls elevator is bonded through Co-Ag farmer cooperative, which is based in Fairfield, Wash.

Starting in July, five-ton trucks line up at the elevator with grain to be augered into the elevator, which is capable of holding 197,000 bushels.

But for the last several years the elevator has only been filled to half capacity, making its fate uncertain.

"Volume is huge for us, and when the volume continues to decline it can be hard to cover costs," Co-Ag General Manager Jackie Tee said. Co-Ag recently had to close an elevator in nearby Chewelah for lack of use. The Kettle Falls elevator is the last in Stevens County, where four elevators once operated to capacity.

This decline in production is symptomatic of rural areas that are far from their markets. The Kettle Falls elevator is over 400 miles from where the price for wheat, barley and oats is set, in Portland. The distance means a dollar or more in transportation cost per bushel.

This, coupled with new combines costing $300,000 or more, has prompted some farmers to switch to hay crops or invest in their own storage bins to avoid transportation and storage costs.

"We have moved to home storage as well as using our grains to feed our cattle," Colville area farmer Murray Darnielle said. "Raising grains here can be really challenging anymore."

This is a shift for an area that used to harvest nearly 700,000 bushels each year in wheat alone. It had its own local flour and feed mill until 1966. By 2002, the wheat harvest was down by more than 60 percent, at 284,000 bushels harvested.

"On a small scale, this is what is happening nationwide as the cost of production is forcing farms to consolidate," said Martin Cunningham, who works for the area Farm Service Agency. "Even in our area, three producers grew a third of the total grain harvest for the year. When you spend $300,000 or more on a piece of equipment, you want to keep it employed."

Jamie Henneman
Future Uncertain for County's Last Elevator
Capital Press, August 13, 2010

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