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THE NATION

Moving mountains of wheat is an uphill battle

A hard Colorado winter brings a record, high- value harvest. But how to get it all to market?

September 02, 2007|Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writer

PAOLI, COLO. — The good news: After a winter of multiple blizzards created hardships for residents and killed thousands of livestock in Eastern Colorado, the region is experiencing a record wheat harvest with high market value.

The bad news: There's no way to get it all to market.

"It's the right kind of problem to have," said state Agriculture Commissioner John R. Stulp, a farmer himself with excess wheat sitting in bins on his property. "But it would be insult on top of injury to have a good crop and lose part of it."

Grain-elevator operators have overflow wheat piling up on the ground -- as much as 10 million bushels statewide -- which is vulnerable to rain and windstorms. "It makes you nervous," said Steve Bahnsen, general Paoli Farmers Co-op manager, who estimates he has $1.9 million worth of wheat -- 300,000 bushels -- piled in front of his elevator.

The problem, officials said, is that Colorado has suffered through a lingering drought that depressed wheat yields for the last decade. Grain-hauling outfits went bankrupt and rail lines didn't schedule as many cars to run to the high plains.

This summer's bounty follows -- and in large part is due to -- the brutal winter, which left behind much-needed moisture. Now there isn't enough transportation to take the wheat bonanza to the Gulf or Pacific coasts, where 80% of it is usually shipped for export.

Gov. Bill Ritter declared a statewide emergency late last month to allow vehicles with farm license plates to haul wheat to rail yards.

The hope was that farmers could be deputized as wheat truckers and move some of the grain off the ground before late-summer storms.

But elevator operators said the order only made a small dent in their mountains of grain. Few farmers own vehicles that can haul grain, and many are preparing for an unusually early corn harvest, said Kelly Spitzer of Tempel Grain Elevators, which runs elevators in southeast Colorado.

That corn is headed for overstuffed elevators like Spitzer's, which are so crammed that her company has piled 900,000 bushels on the ground. "Time is of the essence," Spitzer said. "We've been very fortunate. . . . but we've got to get it off the ground."

Darrell Hanavan, executive director of the Colorado Wheat Growers Assn., said elevator operators across the state were at risk. "They're really financially exposed right now," he said.

Adding to the problem is what appears to be an economically impossible twist: Despite the huge amount of wheat, prices have stayed high.

That's because yields in eastern Kansas and Oklahoma, the heart of the country's wheat belt, were low this year. The market is starved for the grain, which has kept prices in the $6 range. Usually they run about $3.50 a bushel. And farmers are celebrating.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime development, to have this good a crop and this good a price," said Burl Scherler, 56, a farmer in the southeastern Colorado town of Sheridan Lake. "This is tough country, and you have to hit a home run every once in a while to make it."

The year is proving to be one of extremes.

Eastern Colorado was socked with a series of blizzards between mid-December and early January.

They left 10-foot snowdrifts that clogged roads, smothered cattle and stranded farmers.

Scherler spent most of the winter plowing his land. "It's a bittersweet way to get a lot of moisture," he said.

High prices mean that grain elevators bought unusually large portions of the harvest. Paoli Co-op usually buys about 45% of the available crop; this year it bought 80%.

By early July, the wheat began to pile up outside the elevator, the only towering structure in this flyspeck of a town on the rolling plains southwest of the Nebraska line. By last week, the mound of grain had grown to 42 feet.

In his office, Bahnsen pointed at the grain prices displayed on his computer screen.

"This is the crux of it, right here," he said. He had just bought wheat for $6.64 a few hours earlier. "When you're used to seeing $3.50 wheat or below, that puts it in perspective right there."

During his 41 years working at the elevator, Bahnsen has only had to pile grain four or five times. Never has it reached anything near the size of the current mound.

He's been working 12-hour days steadily for the last several weeks, trying to line up truckers and reserve rail cars. The cars are only available 15 days after they are requested and cost as much as $2,200 plus standard freight charges.

The millet harvest has begun, and Bahnsen knows that ears of corn are just around the corner. He spent Friday trying to find storage bins at area farms.

And, like growers and elevator operators all around him, he hopes that the weather holds while he figures out which crop to put where.

--

nicholas.riccardi@latimes.com

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