GEAPS Preview 2001: Grain storage in the Arizona desert

by Emily Wilson
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The hot, dry Arizona climate in the U.S. is ideal for more than cactus and scorpions. As it turns out, many crops such as durum wheat, corn, sorghum, barley, cotton and alfalfa thrive in the Arizona desert.

Storing grain that is grown in this climate also has its advantages. Arizona wheat (also called desert durum) and barley, especially, are tolerant of the heat and have little moisture at harvest, so storage facilities face few problems with the grain going out of condition.

Storing grain brought in from another part of the country, such as the Midwest, is another story. The extreme Arizona heat coupled with the higher moisture grain means storage facilities must keep the grain aerated. In the summer, the grain is aerated even at night, to keep it cool.

"We've got the best of one world and the worst of another," said John Skelley, president of Arizona Grain, Inc., a grain company based in Casa Grande, Arizona.

Arizona Grain has helped boost exports of desert durum all over the world. Skelley said that during harvest season (May, June and July) three or four trains loaded with Arizona desert durum are sent each month to the export elevator at Corpus Christi, Texas, U.S.

Desert durum has high quality characteristics, in terms of color, protein, gluten strength and test weight. The low moisture content also makes desert durum a bargain since less water is purchased per kernel of grain.

Arizona Grain began as a cooperative in 1972, then was purchased in 1992 by KORT Investments, a holding company. Today, Arizona Grain has eight grain facilities at seven locations — six in Arizona, one in Colorado and one in California — with a total storage capacity of about 6.5 million bushels, as well as two seed processing plants.

The newest is a 900,000-bushel steel facility built in 1997 four miles southeast of Maricopa, Arizona, which is about 40 miles from Phoenix. The facility sits between two of Arizona's largest feedlots and shares its location with a flaked grain processing facility owned by Eagle Milling.

"The location is ideally suited to meet the feed grains demand of the feedlot and dairy industry in the central Arizona region," Skelley said.

Currently, the Maricopa facility is a receiving point for corn, milo, wheat, barley and soft commodities sourced primarily out of Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa. Skelley said future plans call for construction of another 900,000 bushels storage to act as a shipping point for locally grown grains, as well as for Midwestern produced grains.

About 80% of the feed grains brought in are used locally, with some sent on to nearby Phoenix. A belt conveyance system has been installed between the Arizona Grain storage facility and Eagle Milling, which is virtually a stone's throw away. Other conveyors connecting Arizona Grain to a nearby feedlot is planned within the next six months.

The site also sits next to the Union Pacific's main line, and the flat landscape around Maricopa allowed construction of a two-mile straight, uninterrupted (meaning no highway crossings) railroad siding long enough to hold an entire 100-car shuttle train.

Because it is a straight track with no switching involved, the U.P. allows its crew to leave the locomotives with the train and let the trained Arizona Grain personnel pull the train through the grain facility for loading or unloading. Although the railroad does this for some coal shippers, Skelley said he thinks this arrangement was one of the first on the U.P. system.

The facility can load or unload grain at 40,000 bushels per hour. A semi truck can be unloaded in three minutes, a rail car in five minutes and a 100-car shuttle train in about 15 hours.

Trucks are weighed on a split scale over a 250-bushel gravity receiving pit.

At the center of the Maricopa facility are the two 470,000-bushel steel tanks, each 90 feet in diameter and 90 feet tall. The tanks are equipped with hopper bottom floors, which are common in the U.S. southwest where water tables are low. One of the tanks is equipped with a series of 10-hp centrifugal fans for aeration.

Arizona Grain is a member of the Grain Elevator and Processing Society, which will hold its annual conference and trade show, GEAPS Exchange, in Phoenix in March (see story on page 40).

Skelley said GEAPS keeps his company in tune to new developments in the grain industry. "We like to think we run a modern facility, but we're out of the mainstream here in Arizona," Skelley said. "GEAPS provides us with the information and ability to meet vendors who sell equipment that let us stay modern and competitive."

Arizona Grain, Inc.

Headquarters: Casa Grande, Arizona

Total storage capacity: 6.5 million bushels

Facilities: Buckeye, Casa Grande, Maricopa, Sacaton and Yuma, Arizona; Center, Colorado; and Ripley, California.

Other grain-related businesses: Valley Seed, cereal seed processing and sales, and Bermuda grass processing and sales. Arizona Plant Breeders (25% ownership), plant breeding for wheat and barley.

Key personnel: John Skelley, president; Eric Wilkey, vice-president, merchandising; Ken Douglas, elevator superintendent.