A strategic partnership with Kansas State University (KSU) represents the latest step by the Grain Elevator and Processing Society (GEAPS) to adapt to rapid changes in the industry and the growing needs of a new generation of grain facility managers.
In a recent interview with Milling & Baking News and World Grain magazines, the GEAPS leadership detailed the importance for the grain industry of the International Center for Grain Industry Operations, the working name for the program to be developed at KSU.
As an older generation of elevator managers approaches the age of retirement, finding the resources to educate and assist a new generation becomes increasingly important, said Mark Fedje, GEAPS first vice-president. Because facilities today operate with much smaller staffs than was the case 30 years ago, responsibilities often are more complex than in the past and the ability to take time for professional training has become more difficult.
"The urgency behind this initiative, the real problem is with the next generation," said Fedje, who is a grain facilities superintendent with General Mills, Inc., Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. "At a typical grain operation in the past, a company would have 80 to 100 employees spread across three elevators. Today the same complex would operate with a staff of fewer than 20. The good thing is that these facilities run quite efficiently. The downside is we don’t have a natural training ground for successful workers. And operations management is more complex than ever."
TRAINING RESOURCES ERODING
In a white paper about the new project, Dr. Dirk Maier, head of the Department of Grain Science & Industry at Kansas State University (KSU) in Manhattan, Kansas, U.S., noted that training resources for the grain industry always have been diffuse, and that many of these resources are eroding rapidly.
Examples of such resources he cited include federal laboratories, the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and other USDA programs focused on grains, together with programs at land grant universities such as the University of Illinois, Purdue University, Iowa State University, the University of Minnesota, North Dakota State University and Oklahoma State University. The diminution of these resources reflect faculty/scientist and staff retirements with "most open positions eliminated due to budget cuts or redirected toward other priority areas," he said.
During the 20th century, these resources helped catapult the United States to a leadership position in world grain trade.
"The knowledge and expertise that has made the U.S. grain industry the global leader in technology development and commodity marketing has been the result of a largely informal partnership between the private sector (e.g., grain companies and commodity groups) and public institutions such as leading land grant universities," Maier said.
As these U.S. resources are rolled back, Maier noted that many other countries are investing increasing amounts for staffing, research and training associated with grain. China, India, Brazil and Argentina are among countries he cited.
From the perspective of GEAPS, working with KSU makes sense both because of Maier’s presence there and because of the university’s unique strengths.
David Krejci, executive vice-president and international secretary of GEAPS, credited Maier with helping the organization make important adaptations and advances earlier in the decade.
GEAPS has 2,500 members, 60% of whom are managers of grain facilities with most of the remaining 40% suppliers. The organization also has a scattering of affiliate members, including academics.
"GEAPS was established in Chicago in 1929," Krejci said. "The group was established because of the absence of a forum for grain facility managers to gather to discuss issues of common concern."
Fedje added, "It has always been true that there is no way to learn how to run a grain elevator other than running one or talking to someone who does. At first, managers met at conferences to discuss issues of common concern. A newsletter was published. Papers were presented and published."
Looking to move deeper into the information age with its programming, GEAPS held a three-day event in 2002 that was recorded digitally.
"We had the program digitized, but then what were we going to do with it?" Krejci said.
The answer came when Maier, at the time a professor at Purdue, approached GEAPS in 2004 about technology used by Purdue for distance-learning programming. The system was adapted by GEAPS.
While the relationship with GEAPS officially had been with the university and not directly with Maier, Purdue encouraged GEAPS to follow Maier to KSU for the distance-learning program.
Maier was named head of the Department of Grain Science & Industry in 2008.
GEAPS, with Maier, has developed 10 distance-learning courses. The fiveweek courses feature about 10 lectures on DVD, with assignments and testing.
"It has been wildly successful," Fedje said. "Many new managers take the course. There is now a way to learn operations."
THE NEXT STEP
The International Center for Grain Industry Operations is seen by Fedje as a natural next step for GEAPS. Having demonstrated interest among its members in distance learning, the center is seen as the vehicle for members to more fully actualize their professional potential.
The center will offer credentialing programs, allowing participants to earn Continuing Education Units (CEUs) or university credits in their studies.
With the creation of the center, KSU is planning to develop and offer a Certificate in Grain Industry Operations through the Department of Grain Science and Industry.
Ultimately, the certificate will be available for distance delivery at other universities which will be able to enroll via KSU’s Division of Continuing Education.
Under the program, 15 to 18 course credits will be available through the KSU Department of Grain Science and Industry.
Fedje said by raising the profile of GEAPS education programs, the grain industry will have better trained employees and will be able to better compete with other sectors in attracting talent. Additionally, because KSU will be partnering closely with GEAPS, it is more likely that the university will develop courses that meet the practical needs of the industry.
"This center will be in addition to current GEAPS programming, which will continue," Fedje said. "Everything we do will be about professional development and continuing education. That’s what GEAPS always has been." Approximately 30 industry professionals are currently working with KSU to develop strategic plans for the center and the credentialing program.
For KSU, the center makes sense for a number of reasons beyond simply the many retirements of key leaders at federal laboratories and universities, Maier said.
"The present U.S. grain handling system was largely developed in the 1980s to serve increased export demand," he said. "The goals were distribution oriented."
With the U.S. grain market shifting steadily toward a domestic orientation and with the rapid growth of the biofuels sector, the industry has "grown into a complex supply chain serving several hundred new U.S.-based processing plants as well as the traditional domestic customers and export channels," Maier said.
This shift will have profound consequences for the grain industry, Maier said, and steps should be taken promptly in preparation.
"A higher level of sophistication and professionalism will be required in the grain handling industry while the pool of qualified individuals to develop from within companies is diminishing," he said. "The professional of tomorrow will need to be well grounded in the science and technology of grains but all need a total supply chain view and an understanding of how their actions fit in a larger, more environmentally sensitive, sustainable economy."
Explaining the need for a unique center devoted to studying and teaching issues related to grain handling, Maier said no "comprehensive center of thought, applied science and action" exists anywhere in the United States or around the world.
Meanwhile, KSU is a natural for such a program given that it uniquely already offers degrees in feed science and management, milling science and management and bakery science and management as well as the International Grains Program.
These programs "strongly link the Department of Grain Science and Industry and its faculty, staff and students to industry stakeholders of the entire grain supply chain from producers to handlers to processors to end users in both the domestic and international markets," Maier said.
Other reasons for creating the center at KSU, according to the white paper, include:
• The industry’s historical leadership in grain safety, particularly dust explosion research under the leadership of Robert Schoeff, professor emeritus of grain science and industry;
• The university’s existing master of agribusiness degree, which will allow grain operations industry professionals to pursue a master’s-level education;
• The university’s proximity to and close working relationship with the USDA ARS Grain Marketing & Production Research Center; and
• KSU’s proximity and close working relationship with the American Institute of Baking International, with its expertise in sanitation, pest management and quality management systems.
The center is expected to support an endowed chair position in the Department of Grain Science & Industry, who will be the professor-in-charge and director, the white paper said. Maier said the center should attract funding to support two other endowed chair positions in bioprocess technology and systems/lifecycle analysis related to grains.
"The overall vision is that the senior-level positions taken together and working together will form the core of the best training program and think tank for grains in the world," Maier said.
Josh Sosland is editor of Milling & Baking News, World Grain’s sister publication. He can be reached at