Semper letteris mandate
The terminal has undergone some major changes in the past couple of years, including a growth spurt of some 37 feet and the addition of an expensive “colour sorting” machine. It’s also undergoing a shift of branding.”
“We’re still known as South West Terminal,” says Monty Reich, general manager, “but we’ve rebranded ourselves to just SWT. We’ve done that because our business has expanded to not just be the grain terminal, but to crop input locations in the southwest, and we thought it was time for a change.”
Perhaps the most significant change, however, has been to the main shipping leg.
It could be argued that the “leg” is the engine driving the entire terminal. While granaries and terminals are often referred to as elevators, the true elevators are these legs – tubes with a conveyor belt of small buckets that carry grain from the front pit to a higher point in the plant. From here, gravity can be used to guide the rest of the process. The first leg was invented by Joseph Dart, a merchant, and Robert Dunbar, an engineer in the 1840s. It used steam power to lift grain from ships to the top of a tower. Although the technology has undergone radical shifts since then, the basic principle is the same.
“We did a bunch of renovations a year or so ago,” says Kendell Radtke, plant manager and my guide for the tour. “Our shipping leg — the biggest leg — we did a big upgrade on. It used to only go half way up and conveyors took the grain to the car. Now it’s the tallest.” It’s also responsible for the plant’s increase in height.
“We added a fair bit of height with that new leg. From the ground to the top of our new shipping leg is 267 feet. It used to be 230. We added another 37 feet. Two weighing boxes weigh the grain as we’re moving it.”
This ability to weigh grain on the fly is crucial. If an overloaded car is caught farther down the line, it can cost SWT $3,500 or more to correct. “They might catch it in Calgary,” says Radtke, “and we have to find somebody to unload a few ton of grain out of that car.”
There are three legs at SWT.
“The two small legs do about 12,500 bushels an hour,” says Radtke, “and our big one does about 30,000 bushels an hour. By getting that leg up to the roof, we can move grain wherever we need to move it.”
The grain goes through several processes by means of different chutes and machinery. Many of these processes are stages of cleaning, starting from separating out stones and stubble to removing the fine chaff.
“There’s a big wheel with holes in it and the heavy stuff falls through. The indent cylinder has pockets that the grain fits in. Any grain that fits gets carried away, and anything that doesn’t rides to the bottom.”
Of course, it takes a lot of good grain with the bad, so the refuse is reprocessed once more to reclaim anything useful. “It’s a fine-tuning machine. You’re not wasting grain.”
The newest addition to the cleaning process, and certainly one of the most expensive, is what Radtke calls “the colour sorter,” which was installed just a few months ago.
“Last year we ran into trouble with ergot,” Radtke says.
Ergot has been a problem throughout history. A fungus with poisonous and hallucinogenic properties, it has been linked to the medieval epidemic known as St. Anthony’s Fire. It is often fatal.
Fortunately, the fungus is also darker than the rest of the wheat, which is where the colour sorter comes in.
“It’s a complicated piece of equipment,” says Radtke as he shows me a fall of grain running through the main part of the machine. “There are eight cameras, four on each side. There’s light inside the machine. And when it sees something dark hundreds of little compressed air jets hit the ergot and pop it out of the stream.” These jets of air come at a rate of roughly 200,000 blasts every minute. “It’s busy,” Radtke says dryly.
It’s called the “colour sorter,” of course, because it separates “the whites from the darks.” It didn’t come cheap, however. “For this machine and room it was probably half a million dollars.”
At the top of the building Radtke explains how the grain finds its way to the appropriate chutes for the appropriate stages.
“The grain comes up and from the smaller original legs it drops into a distributor. Two different legs feed this distributor. Each one goes into its own separate chute. So it just turns to whatever bin. They rotate. We type into the computer to put it into bin 23, and it spins around to bin 23 and dumps the grain into the proper bin.”
To see how the good grain is loaded into the rail cars where it will begin the next stage of its journey across the country, we go to the “loading shack.” This is a small hut, reached by a catwalk suspended above the rail line. Below we can see a chute dumping grain into one of the cars. The guys in the shack are controlling the operation.
“These guys have access to the computer inside,” explains Radtke. “They can start and stop as they’re loading cars. There are a couple of bins that we load up, and then they transfer the grains into the cars.”
The cars move ahead by one of two methods. At the moment they’re using the cable.
“They hold down a button and move the cars along on a cable. After 20 cars there’s a shuttle wagon, a small train engine. While we’re moving the cable back to the start they use that. That way there’s no down time. We just keep rolling.”
As each car is filled and moved, another worker seals it. I ask why.
“These cars are going to the States,” he answers. “We have to put seals on them. It’s a numbered seal so when it gets to the border they know nobody’s contaminated it. Right after 9/11 we had to seal them up. We had to put like 30 seals. Now we’re down to nine. It’s a little extra manpower. You pretty much need an extra guy just to seal the cars.”
There is a formula for calculating the number of bushels in a ton, or number of tons in the number of bushels.
“There are 36.744 bushels in a ton of wheat, durum or peas,” he tells me. “Different grain weighs out more than others. It takes more bushels of barely to make a ton of grain.”
The terminal puts out a lot of bushels each year.
“One of those trains,” says Radtke pointing, “is around 10,000 tons, which is about 360,000 bushels of durum in each train. In a year we handle probably 350,000 tons. That’s like 35 trains a year.”
From here the grain goes on to mills and bakeries across Canada and the USA. It is transformed into cakes, pastries and bread to be eaten by millions of people.
And it all starts with a truckload of grain being dumped into a large grated hole in SWT’s driveway.