Now that wheat harvest is winding down across northeast Oregon, United Grain Corporation is beginning to focus on how it will upgrade facilities purchased from Pendleton Grain Growers earlier this year.
United Grain has pledged to invest $9 million in the buildings, which include all of PGG's upcountry elevators, the McNary river terminal and Alicel rail terminal. Regional Manager Jason Middleton said they have not made any decisions yet, but hope to have a plan take shape by November.
Middleton, who was hired from PGG after the co-op voted to dissolve in May, said the goal is to add capacity at elevators where farmers are most likely to store their bushels, and increase efficiency at the two terminals to keep trucks moving in and out quickly. Other elevators will likely be shut down for good, though Middleton said the crystal ball is still a little foggy.
"We've had a couple meetings about it, but haven't by any stretch of the imagination come away with a plan of what we're going to do," he said.
This year's winter wheat harvest was a baptism by fire for United Grain, which finalized its deal with PGG on June 10. Fifteen days later, Middleton said they were already taking bushels from the west end of the county, giving them only enough time for an initial cursory glance at infrastructure needs.
Several elevators were closed right off the bat, including the ones at Mission, Holdman, Elgin and McComas in downtown Pendleton.
"Some of them were safety issues, didn't meet our standards and hadn't handled a lot of bushels for a long time," Middleton said.
Others, such as Rew, Stanton and Brogiotti, were closed by Middleton back in 2012 when he took over as director of grain operations for PGG. Since then, Middleton said the majority of money has been spent at McNary and Alicel, which can hold up to 6.6 million bushels and 1.2 million bushels, respectively.
That has a lot to do with how the grain farming industry has changed, Middleton said. Combines are able to cut wheat far more efficiently than they used to, and farms are sending larger trucks farther distances to get their product out to market.
What used to be smaller farm trucks heading to the closest country elevator are now large semis lining up outside McNary along the Columbia River. Ideally, Middleton said they should be able to weight and unload trucks within 5-10 minutes.
"The terminals are farther along than our upcountry elevators," he said. "That's what we're looking at now."
This year's harvest wasn't without its struggles, Middleton said, as they were forced to hit the ground running. But overall, growers in Umatilla County had much better spring and winter conditions and should be closer to their average yields, he said.
"We got some saving rains, and we didn't have a brutal winter either," Middleton said.
Already, the Pendleton area has received some good rains that will help farmers plant into better moisture for next year. According to the National Weather Service, Pendleton has received .68 inches of precipitation during September, more than the usual .45 inches.
Middleton said he is encouraged, but growers need more to continue reversing the damage from previous years of intense drought.
"We have some guys seeding now into better moisture this year," Middleton said.