The Grain Elevator

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“I’ve got to haul a load of grain into town. Who wants to come?” asked my father. Almost always, the answer was: “Take me!”

 

In the days of my childhood, we didn’t get off the farm that much and the ride into town was always a welcome diversion. Sitting in the shaking, rattling, and sputtering old 3–ton and feeling the truck getting its full load of grain above its comfortable field speed was almost like being an astronaut. And I would be in awe of Dad’s coordination as he shifted from one gear to the next, and I could imagine that I too will some day be skillful enough to shift gears on a big truck.

 

Often, there was a bit of lineup at the elevator as trucks were unloading. This gave my hard–working father a chance to chat with other local farmers who did were not part of his regular social circle. Talk centered around weather and tractors and cows and crops. One could learn a lot about farming if one listened in this lineup.

 

Then it was our turn to unload grain. With a full load to master up a ramp, the underpowered truck could not gain enough momentum to get out of first gear and Dad was forced to keep the engine revs high, which he never considered proper to run a grain truck.

 

The elevator man guided us to the proper spot on the scale. My dad ordered me out of the truck. “We shouldn’t cheat the Wheat Pool,” he always said. He often had a nasty comment for less–than–totally honest farmers who he thought used their children’s weight to count as extra grain. This lesson in honesty was more effective anything I had learned in church or school.

 

Standing next to the elevator man, I watched him move the scale weights this way and that way until the scale arm reached that mystical floating point that signified the weighing was complete. The elevator man further verified this task being done by flicking the scale lock with a resounding and confirming clang. I wondered when I would be big and smart enough to run a scale like that.

 

It was time to unload the truck. The elevator man guided Dad to move the truck to the next right spot. When we had the ’54 Ford, Dad moved the front wheels of the truck to sit atop of the hydraulic hoist that was to lift the front end of the truck so we wouldn’t have to shovel the entire load. Dad always asked if I wanted to sit in the cab of the while the front end was being lifted, thinking that this should be very exciting for a kid. He was right, but it was too exciting for this risk–averse boy—and the truck looked so vulnerable with its front end held high in the jaws of the grain elevator hoist. When Dad bought the ’62 Ford cabover with its own hoist, I never had the opportunity to ride the elevator’s hydraulic hoist again.

 

With the truck in the proper place and the truck box up, the elevator man pulled wooden levers dangling from the rafters and turned metal wheels with shafts coming from the wall to enact some mysterious machinations in the insides of the elevator. “He must be very smart to understand all this,” I thought. The elevator man then flicked a switch and a chug–chug sound which I never understood came from the bowels of the building.

 

When the elevator seemed set to take our grain, the chute on the truck box was opened. Grain spilled out and hit the steel grate with an unending hiss and disappeared in a hole beneath the grate. More than a few odd kernels bounced off grate’s bars onto the floor of the elevator and thus escaping the fate of the chug–chug sound below. The elevator man grabbed a sample of grain a small weird–shaped can that one could only find in a grain elevator. He put the grain and can on a small scale, moving the weights this way and that way until the scale arm reached its balance, just like the big scale that weighed the truck. He threw the sample in an electrical machine that separated the chaff from the grain. I liked watching the chaff go one way and the kernels go another and was amazed how the two components knew which way to go. The elevator man weighed the grain and can again and put some of the grain in another electrical device which only moved a needle on a gauge that made no sense to me.

 

The last little bit of grain always had to be shoveled out of the box of the truck. I was much too small for this job, but I grabbed the broom to sweep those few wayward kernels back into the black hole where the rest of the grain disappeared. The elevator man always gave me an approving eye when I did this job without being told to, and I relished this silent praise.

 

The elevator man weighed the truck again. Dad, the elevator man, and I went into the elevator office to discuss things that a small boy could not understand. But my patience was rewarded with a few jellybeans which told me I was welcome in this place.

 

While in town, it made sense to stop for an ice cream or pop. So to the restaurant we went, and usually Dad found someone to talk with. Sometimes it was another farmer to talk farmer talk, and sometimes it was a town resident to talk about the curling rink or firehall or whatever else bounded the farm and town communities together. Sometimes, one of my friends from school would be there too. Hauling grain to town was a necessary job for a farmer, but it was also a social event that you weren’t sure who was going to show up.

 

The world of a small child is very, very big. What adults often take for granted, children find massive, mysterious, and mind–boggling. To me, the elevator portrayed not just a prairie landmark, it was a building full of ominous and perplexing happenings. Every time I went to the elevator, it seemed like I learned a little bit more about the world around me even though children were not encouraged in those days to ask too many questions about the adult world, which included grain elevators.

 

But when we grow up, we lose the sense of awe and wonderment of common things. We stop trying to figure them out because they are so common. I never really did figure out how an elevator worked. Maybe it’s best that I didn’t.

Comments

Stone-Eater Friedli Added Aug 4, 2017 - 6:09am
Nice one, Dave. Gives me some insight into farm life in the US back then.
Ari Silverstein Added Aug 4, 2017 - 9:14am
Fabulous article.  Two comments/questions:
 
Why weight the grain twice?  Shouldn’t once have been enough.  Depending on your answer to that question, why would it have been necessary for you to get out of the truck to have an honest weigh?
 
I never thought that part of farming is simply hauling the harvest to where it needs to go.  Do you think a lot of farmers hire outside people to do that so that they can focus on growing grain.  After all, those trucks can’t be cheap.  The money they save could go towards better farm equipment. 
Ari Silverstein Added Aug 4, 2017 - 9:22am
Is the reason the weighed it twice to account for the weight of the truck?  How did they account for the weight of the truck?  Perhaps you needed to get out to make more money as your weight might have made it appear like you had less grain.  
 
Did your father get paid cash on the spot?
Dave Volek Added Aug 4, 2017 - 10:09am
Good question Ari!
 
The first weighing is the truck and the grain (gross). The second weighing is the truck (tare). The amount of wheat (net) is the difference between the two.
 
Some farmers would tell their kids to stay in the truck on the first weighing. Then the kids would leave the truck for second weighing. In this way, the farmer got credit for an extra 50 pounds of grain (per kid) for each trip they made to the grain elevator. Usually the elevator man overlooked this indiscretion because it was rather insignificant, but everyone could see there was a little cheating--and this affected dealing with this farmer in other community affairs. 
 
The elevator man could cut a check for the farmer if he really pleaded that he needed the cash. But generally speaking, the farmer had to wait for a week to get a check in the mail.
 
These days, farmers are not hauling their own grain. They contract truckers to unload their granaries and take it to the modern elevator, which is designed to efficiently handle much bigger loads. Farmers have become more specialized in the past decades, concentrating on a fewer skill sets and doing those skills rather well--instead of being a jack-of-all trades.
 
Thomas Napers Added Aug 5, 2017 - 3:50am
Very well written article.  Did you follow in your father’s footsteps and become a farmer? 
 
Your article makes me think of a great new business, Uber for farmers.  All that specialized machinery seems awfully expensive, yet only gets used once in a while.  There should be a way for farmers to buy the very best equipment and then rent out the equipment when not in use. 
 
How do you feel about GMO seed and Monsanto?  Are they generally beneficial to farming or if you could have your way would you do away with them?    
Dave Volek Added Aug 5, 2017 - 10:23am
Thomas:
 
No, I did not become a farmer. I think it's a good occupation if there are no bank payments to make. But principal and interest payments make it very stressful. I went into the oilpatch, then found my way into education.
 
Farmers are moving further away from the self-sufficient entrepreneur they portray themselves to be. For example, they may still make minor repairs to their equipment, but any major repair that takes more than a couple of hours, they call in the mechanics. 
 
Your Uber idea is great, and is some aspects of agriculture have already had this for many decades. Many big grain farmers do not have their own harvesting equipment. Rather than hire out itinerant harvest crews, with four to ten combines and grain haulers. These crews start in May in Texas and work their way up to Saskatchewan by September. There are no set contracts between farmers and crews; the crew chief is making deals as the crews travel north. The farmers have no guarantee that someone specific will harvest their grain, but they seem to find someone. There might be 50 of these crews operating every summer. The equipment is working six months a year. But in my farming days, these combines were trashed out after two seasons, but I think the equipment is better built these days.
 
The GMO question? I am neutral on this point. I believe this is one issue that western democracy cannot properly resolve. I hoping some day my alternative governance will have the ability to make a wise decision.
 
 
Autumn Cote Added Aug 5, 2017 - 5:18pm
Excellent writing!  It's too bad non-political articles like this don't get much comment traction here.  So who runs the family farm today?  
Dave Volek Added Aug 5, 2017 - 5:53pm
Autumn:
My brother runs the family farm, but he is the process of retiring. The land will soon be out of "Volek" hands since 1945. Sad, but small farms are not very economical these days. Anyways, I'm glad for the opportunity to be raised on the farm. For sure, I could never say I was bored.
 
Minister Peaceful Poet Added Aug 6, 2017 - 7:05am
Good story.  Been there done that, but there were no farmers around the elevator, just us truck drivers. They'd fill up our 53' trailer with grain and we'd take it to a silo a state or two away.  We'd wait in line until we got to the elevator, they'd weigh our truck, dump it and weigh it again.  It amazed me how they could pick that whole truck up end like that.  Those trucks are heavy.  This one farmer that we picked up at was always trying to sell us a chili mix.  I bought one once, he asked if I wanted more, I said no, I'll be back. Got home, mixed it up, best chili I ever tasted in my life.  Sadly, I was never sent back there again.  I wished I had bought more.  That was good chili.
Dave Volek Added Aug 6, 2017 - 11:04pm
The consolidation of the grain elevators has been good business for truck drivers. Grain moves a lot further down the road than it used to. There used to be grain elevators within 10 miles of most farms.
 
Too bad about the chili mix. But I always say it is better to have the good memory than not to have it.
James E. Unekis Added Aug 8, 2017 - 9:21am
Good article Dave.  Your youthful memories caused me to think of one of my own in southern Louisiana.  My father would take us to the Walking Beam Ferry to cross the Mississippi.  It had a 25 foot long massive arm, made out of live oak, which transferred the power from the steam engine to the paddle wheel.  It seemed alive and magical as it "walked" back and forth and slightly up and down.  It was open to view; only a small gate kept people from getting in.  I was always fascinated by the sights and sounds.
 
Ah, the fond memories of childhood!  You did a great job of capturing that.
Even A Broken Clock Added Aug 10, 2017 - 12:20pm
Growing up in Nebraska, and driving across the prairie, it always seemed like you could see the grain elevator for the next town just as the one for the town you left disappeared on the horizon. Grain elevators and water towers were the markers that showed where a town or village was. As you drew nearer, you could see the trees that only grew in towns.
 
Grain elevators did have a dark side however. All of the organic dust churned up by the movement of grain has a nasty tendency to blow up in a dust cloud explosion. Every few years there would be a story about how an elevator exploded. If you are lucky, no one was killed, but too often the explosions took human lives as well.
William Stockton Added Aug 12, 2017 - 9:04am
Beautiful Story.  Thanks Dave.

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