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Every year, landlord Dwan Jantz comes to her field
near Wilbur when the grain is being harvested.

Photo by William Bell




Beyond the bin

Eastern Washington wheat growers turn to grain bags for storage flexibility

October 2020
By Trista Crossley

Some Eastern Washington farmers are starting to think outside the bin when it comes to how they handle wheat at harvest.

“We were approaching the year with a lot of uncertainty out there in the grain market, and also the fear that maybe an elevator or two might have employees that contract the coronavirus and get shut down. If that was the case, what was Plan B? Where do we go with our grain if our elevator of choice is not open?” said Randy Emtman. “We always try to forward contract some of our crop, so say that an elevator had a temporary closure—there’d be no place to go with that grain that we are obligated to deliver.”

For Emtman Brothers Farms in Valleyford, Wash., the answer turned out to be grain bags, those long, plastic tubes that are more commonly seen in Canadian and Midwest fields than in the Pacific Northwest.

Gary Dible, the Spokane region general manager for Papé Machinery, has some experience with grain bagging systems, having helped a manufacturer with testing and development work, along with selling and starting up several systems.

“A grain bagging system is inexpensive to get into because if you need to store more bushels, you just buy more bags. You can do that in very short period of time versus building grain bins or some sort of structure. That takes time and is a huge capital investment,” Dible said. “Farmers are looking for ways to enhance their bottom line. The marketing options that come with storing your own grain are becoming more and more important. As soon as you haul grain to the elevator, your marketing options become one. By storing grain in a bag or a bin, you have all the marketing options in the world.”

The bags used for storing grain are made out of a 3-ply plastic, are highly UV resistant and typically run 10 feet in diameter and hundreds of feet in length. Most bags are designed to store grain for at least a year. While there is an initial investment in the equipment, it is far less expensive—and time consuming—than building additional grain bins, and it can be more flexible, as additional storage is just a bag away.

The Emtman farm does have some grain bins, but Emtman said they date back to the late 70s, early 80s, and just can’t handle the volume of grain that comes from today’s high capacity combines. The cost of building new grain bins was also a factor in the Emtmans’ decision to purchase a used grain bagging system. So far this year, they’ve filled 8 bags (as of mid-September) and are using them to temporarily store not only wheat, but peas, lentils and Kentucky bluegrass seed as well.

“We are very happy with our decision,” Emtman said, adding that the plan is to have the bags emptied before the wet fall weather sets in.

Besides the flexible storage and increased marketing opportunities, Dible said another advantage of bagging grain is that it can help decrease labor costs at harvest.

“There are people that bag everything in the field at harvest and don’t have trucks. They just have combines, a bank-out wagon and a bagger. No trucks are involved, so it can cut labor requirements in half at harvest,” he explained, pointing out that trucks can often be hired at a lower rate after harvest to move the grain out of the bags.

Saving on transportation costs was one of the main reasons Carl Anderson purchased a grain bagging system this year. Anderson and his family farm several far-flung pieces of land south of Kennewick and around the Prosser area. He said they’d been looking for a solution to on-farm storage, but grain bins were too expensive and stationary.

“We run three combines and have a hard time moving a lot of grain out of the field without a fleet of semis,” he said. “The combines would be stopping (while waiting for the trucks to get back), and it’s too expensive to let the combines idle. This solved the problem that we were having as far being able to store grain without waiting on trucks. We were able to eliminate a couple of semis we usually had to hire. We’ll haul the grain ourselves during the off season.”

Dible, who sold the system to Anderson, was on hand to help and answer questions when they started bagging grain in July. Anderson said they ended up using eight, 400-foot long bags that hold approximately 18,000 bushels of wheat each. Once they are done with fall seeding, they’ll start hauling the grain down to the river.

“It was surprisingly easy to do, and we have unloaded one bag already,” Anderson said.

Besides the storage flexibility, lower transportation costs and increased marketing options, Dible identified several other advantages in a grain bagging system, including:

• No need to treat grain for insects. Dible explained that when the bag is sealed, oxygen is depleted, making the environment inhospitable for pests;
• There’s no loss of moisture while grain is stored and no need for fans; and
• Source verification is easier as grain can be stored in the field it came from.

The main disadvantages to a grain bagging system are the initial cost of purchasing the loader and unloader and the need to keep spilled grain minimized so as to not attract wildlife or livestock. The bags are single use. Dible said it typically costs about $.07 per bushel to store the grain in the bags.

Most grain bagging systems are currently manufactured by small companies and aren’t going to be found on local dealers’ lots, at least in the Pacific Northwest. When asked why he thought the system hadn’t really taken off in Eastern Washington, Dible wondered if it was simply lack of exposure and knowledge of the system.

“In my opinion, for what it is worth, it’s such a flexible system, whether you have a small crop or a huge crop, it can flex to your requirements and your needs. The whole goal of the system is to make producers more profitable,” Dible said.