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Making the grade

Grain specialist Chris Fralic spreads a lake of golden kernels across a drab beige mat with his calloused hands. He picks up a pair of tweezers and pours over them, in search of a needle in a haystack.
Aug 23 2011<br />Assistant manager Chris Fralic searches a grain sample for lumps of ergot
Aug 23 2011<br />Assistant manager Chris Fralic searches a grain sample for lumps of ergot

Grain specialist Chris Fralic spreads a lake of golden kernels across a drab beige mat with his calloused hands. He picks up a pair of tweezers and pours over them, in search of a needle in a haystack.

There are hundreds of kernels in this 500-gram sample, and it's his job to find the defective ones. "I look for anything that doesn't belong," he explains, such as bugs, rocks and straw. Many of these imperfections are visible only under magnification — it takes a trained eye to spot them.

He soon zooms in on his target: a single black grain hidden amidst the horde. This is a chunk of ergot, a fungus, and having even one of them in a sample can seriously erode its value. "This is the worst year I've seen [for ergot] in 14 years."

This fall, hundreds of local farmers will load their trucks with grain and haul them it to grain elevators throughout Alberta. There, they'll have to put their crops before the watchful eyes of evaluators like Fralic to see if their grains make the grade — and if they'll make any money.

Elevator operators

Fralic is the assistant manager of the Providence Grain Solutions' Gaudin elevator near Fort Saskatchewan — one of the few independently owned elevators in Alberta.

A wisecracking, agile fellow who spends his days sorting grain and scaling silos, he says he fell into the field after a friend got him a job at an elevator. (He used to work for Fountain Tire.) "I didn't know wheat from barley [at first]."

Now, after many courses and years of experience, he can tell you everything that's wrong about a pile of grain in just a few minutes.

His co-worker is Rick Gregg, the elevator's vice-president of operations. A gruff, greying farmhand from Manitoba, he's been in the grain business since 1983.

An elevator is a storage facility used by farmers to load grain into train cars for shipment to market, Gregg says, and usually has staff to grade, clean and sell the stuff, too. There are about 90 of them in Alberta, according to the Canadian Grain Commission (Canada's grain regulator). The Gaudin elevator itself is a row of shining steel silos and blue gantries that was built in 1988. It holds about 15,000 tonnes of grain at once, and services about 300 customers in a 100-kilometre radius.

Good grain, bad grain

Gaudin gets up to 70 truckloads of grain a day, Gregg says, all of which has to be graded.

The process starts when staffers take a core sample from the load using a long probe, Fralic says. A grader then runs the grain through a series of vibrating screens that removes all the inedible straw, dirt and rocks, which are collectively called dockage. That dockage is then subtracted from the weight of the shipment.

"Even though [the farmer] hauled me 40 tonnes, he may only get paid for 38,." says Fralic.

After removing the dockage, staff members take 500 grams of the grain,grain; spread it on a flat leather grading mat and start judging.

Grains are usually given a grade from one to four, says Daryl Beswitherick, manager of quality assurance for the Canadian Grain Commission, where one is the great and four is poor. The grade reflects the grain's performance: you'll get fluffy, tasty bread from number one wheat and flat, hole-filled loaves with number four. Really horrible grains may be graded as "feed" (fit only for animals) or "commercial salvage" (effectively useless).

Graders make their judgments based on a host of criteria set by the commission's scientists, Beswitherick continues. A grain's grade is determined by factors such as foreign material (rocks, ergot and weed seed), environmental problems (bugs, mildew or frost) and quality issues (breakage, protein and hardness).

Some of these factors are very strict. Because it's toxic, for example, one or two bits of ergot in 10,000 pieces of grains can mean the difference between a class one and a class two. Others, such as maturity or frost damage, are more subjective, and are judged by comparing grains to standardized samples sent out by the commission.

Fralic spreads two samples of Canada prairie spring wheat on his grading mat to demonstrate. The wheat on the left is bright gold in colour, lacks straw, bugs and wrinkles, and has hardly any ergot. This would be a two, he says, and could be used to make bread.

Then you have the one on the right. "This is just total garbage," he says. Mould and frost damage have left this grain a drab, wrinkly yellow. It's also full of straw and ergot, and has a few live rusty red grain beetles crawling around in it — a major no-no, as live bugs will eat grain. This is very poor grain, he says, and would be classified as feed. "It's only good for cattle."

Once the visual inspection is complete, workers run the sample through an infrared detector to determine its protein content (more is better) and calculate a final grade and price for the grain. The whole grading process takes five to 20 minutes, Gregg says.

Cleanup on silo four

The farmer then drives his or her truck forward into the receiving bay and dumps their load — a simple process where they kick open the back or bottom of the truck's box and let a waterfall of grain rush out. Each truck carries about 45 tonnes and takes several minutes to empty.

That grain rushes through a large grate to filter out large foreign objects, Fralic says, such as the dead pigeons in this nearby wheelbarrow. "Pigeons, cellphones, you name it; anything can come in on a load of grain. One of these times I swear I'm going to dump a truck and [lying] there will be Jimmy Hoffa!"

Grains land in a funnel-shaped pit and flow over to a bucket elevator, Gregg says, which roars along at about 52 revolutions a minute. The grain zips about six stories up to a computerized scale at the top of the elevator that weighs out a predetermined amount of product. Once it has enough, the scale directs the grain to the appropriate silo with a mechanical spout.

Customers don't want contaminants in their product, Gregg says, so they have to clean the grain before it's shipped. Computerized buckets and conveyors direct grain from one of the silos over to the facility's cleaning plant, where it runs through a series of vacuums, rollers, and shaking screens to remove dust, straw, rocks and anything else that's not grain-sized.

Next comes the colour sorter — a white, computerized device with a series of flat, transparent chutes down its front. Grains pour through the chutes single-file, Gregg says, shouting to be heard over the rush of seeds, passing in front of cameras as they do. When the cameras spot something that's not grain-coloured (say, black ergot), they trigger an air jet to knock the bad seed out of the stream and into the trash. Judging from the indicator lights on the front, this happens hundreds of times a minute.

The now cleaned grain heads to the train cars outside. Cars are typically loaded in 50-car blocks, Fralic says, with each car holding up to 100 tonnes of grain. Workers first spend an hour inspecting the hatches and brakes on the cars before they open the doors on top and pour in the grain. Given the weight and height of the cars, helmets and harnesses are a must for this part of the job. Once a train is full, it's hauled to port for shipment.

Elevator workers may have to grade about 80 loads of grain a day, Fralic says, working from first light until late night. "It's so fast paced you don't have time to sneeze."

It's a repetitive job, Fralic says, but there are always new challenges. "Monotonous, yes. Boring, no."

Kevin Ma

About the Author: Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.
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