Critically Essential: The Movement of Grain in the Treasure State
The Montana Department of Agriculture is taking necessary steps to cross-train employees an ensure that essential jobs remain staffed if COVID-19 were to hit the department. Blake Brawley, the State Grain Lab (SGL) Bureau Chief, has been watching the situation closely: “At the Montana State Grain Lab, we are taking the spread of COVID-19 very seriously. To help combat the spread of this disease we have implemented safety protocols to ensure the safety of our employees along with the safety of producers and our industry partners and their employees. We have limited office access to employees only, and are utilizing our drop box for submitted samples to avoid interruption of grading for our producers and industry partners. We are continuing the official sampling program. In conjunction with our industry partners, we have been able to set up a system of limited contact while still providing this important service in the agriculture food supply chain.
As with any stressful and challenging situation, the Montana State Grain Lab has chosen to find the silver lining and build relationships. During this time, we have worked to strategically identify state employees to cross-train on our Federal Grain Inspection Service (FGIS) regulated sampling program. We have also been provided a great opportunity to form partnerships with other FGIS grading labs as a precaution in the event the State Grain Lab would need to reduce services. We truly hope we will not need to resort to any drastic measures, but are confident in our ability to provide these important services to our customers if there was a need to reduce our services at the lab.“
Typically, this time of year at the Montana Wheat and Barley Committee (MWBC), we would be planning for the many international visitors that come to scout Montana fields each summer, tour our elevators, and learn more about the quality we have to offer in our small grains. However, these activities have been pushed back to later in the year due to the travel ban. In the meantime, I have been able to shadow 2 grain samplers from the State Grain lab, Scott Geda and Zach Rubens.
Grain Samplers drive throughout the Treasure State probing railcars, totes, trucks, and bag lots. This is a very time sensitive process as the elevator will load the product and order a sample through the SGL and need to get the products in transit to avoid costly demurrage charges. The sampler will get their orders each morning, a typical route may entail driving from Great Falls to Chester, Tiber, Cut Bank, Conrad and then back to Great Falls.
The sampler will arrive at the facility and fill out several forms related to safety and bookkeeping. They will put on a variety of safety equipment and head out to the railcar needing to be sampled. The largest piece of equipment used is the probe, a 25 pound brass rod 12 feet long that is brought to the top of the 18-20 foot high grain car. They will then open the hatches and go through a step by step process developed by the Federal Grain Inspection Service to get a proportionate sample of the contents.
I was very surprised how physically demanding this job is! You need to be comfortable with heights, the walking platform on the railcar is about 2.5 feet wide, it reminded me of the feeling of being on the roof of a 2-story house, you never really get comfortable. Granted the probe is awkward and heavy then to proceed to drive the 12-foot rod to the bottom of the railcar is no easy feat. The grain at the bottom of the railcar has an immense amount of pressure making the last few feet like pushing it through concrete. A “trick” Zach and Scott showed me was to essentially put both hands on the probe and jump and fall onto the rod with all your weight. It was very difficult, having probed several railcars it never got easier. Zach and Scott explained to me their favorite commodities to probe, both said barley and canola are very easy, and the hardest commodities to probe are lentils, chickpeas and my personal nemesis was split peas. The sampler will then seal the rail car and head out to the next destination. 1 sampler can handle about 10-15 railcars a day. This whole process is a team effort, April Peterson has been stepping up at the office to handle the logistics and ensure the customers are serviced each day and, “She has been doing an outstanding job filling in and putting in long hours” said Brawley.
When it comes to sampling there are several other immediate safety factors that need to be focused on beyond COVID-19 which require 100% concentration. The State Grain Lab to me is even a step above essential, I would call it “critically essential”. The official grade certificate is often one of the most important pieces of information for the movement of commodities. This certificate can often be the initiator for payment to the elevator and gives the green light to proceed with the shipment. The Department of Agriculture is doing a great job of making sure these “critically essential” jobs are prepared to handle the “what ifs” of the situation. The Montana Wheat and Barley Committee is committed to make necessary measures continue the movement of grain in the Treasure State. Right now, our job is to continue to educate and cross-train so that if the SGL needs help, MWBC will be there.
Industry Analyst at the Montana Wheat and Barley Committee