The annual rite of the wheat harvest has begun: Combines are cutting the fields, trucks have started unloading the grain at elevators and office workers are busy working the phones trying to sell the bounty.
Area farmers can choose from five elevators in Douglas County at which to store or sell their wheat. These elevators are the Baldwin Grain Co. Inc., Baldwin; Farmers Elevator Co., Eudora; the Midland Elevator, Rt. 3, Lawrence; and the Farmers Cooperative Assn.'s north and south elevators, both in Lawrence.
The FCA's north elevator, stretching 160 feet skyward by the Kansas River at 325 Locust, is the largest elevator in the county. The elevator features 37 bins with a 759,000-bushel storage capacity.
When wheat is trucked to the elevator, it is stored in concrete bins. The grain trucks are unloaded at the elevator using a device called a "leg." The leg a belt with buckets on it runs the wheat up to the bin and dumps the grain inside.
Farmers can choose to sell their wheat to the elevator right away or pay the elevator to store the wheat in hopes the grain will increase in price. The FCA sells the grain it buys to another elevator, a mill or an exporter.
MELVIN LANG, branch manager for the FCA's north elevator, said grain can be stored for several years "if it's dry and kept in condition."
Elevators condition grain by keeping insects out and turning it to aerate it, he said.
"There's fans that suck air through the grain in the whole bin," Lang said. "Then we have a temperature system that can keep track of the temperature of the grain . . . so it don't start heating on you."
Wheat harvested in the summer comes in hot, he said, and stays hot until it is aerated in the fall. The elevator also features a system that pulls out the volatile grain dust when the grain is being turned or received.
Lang said the elevator makes its money from storage and the margin between their purchase and selling price.
The biggest change confronting elevators in recent years was the end of the government storage program in the mid-1980s.
"The cash price is better than the government support prices, so it doesn't go over to the government," he said. "It made it tough in the grain business. Elevators had to find ways of income through fertilizer and other farm products and try to survive."
The FCA recently merged with the Overbrook Farmers Union Cooperative Assn., bringing the expanded co-op's assets to $12.5 million. In addition to Lawrence and Overbrook, the co-op has elevators in Edgerton in Johnson County along with Scranton and Michigan Valley in Osage County.
MOST OF THE grain leaving the FCA north elevator is transported by truck instead of rail. A chute is located over a driveway to deposit grain into trucks, or the leg is used to load grain into a hopper car.
Larry Coffman, FCA grain merchandiser, said the market dictates where the wheat is sold and how it is transported.
"It could be trucked into mills for milling flour, it could be . . . shipped for export to the Texas gulf," he said.
Brad Schweitzer, FCA grain merchandiser, said a lot of the local wheat traded by the company is trucked to grain elevators and mills in Kansas City on both the Kansas and Missouri sides.
The grain market also determines how long wheat is stored and when it is sold, Schweitzer said.
"You're buying that grain from the farmers, so you're carrying the inventory," he said. "You have interest against it, so as long as you've got the borrowing capabilities and the prospects are good, you can afford to carry it."
Much of the FCA's grain is dealt at the Kansas City Board of Trade, which specializes in hard winter wheat, Coffman said.