Urban creep is changing Stouffville’s diminishing agricultural heritage. In July, while crops were lush, I investigated how whole grain bread gets from the golden wheat fields surrounding our town to store shelves. I didn’t have far to look to find a famous Stouffville resource.
St. Lawrence Grains & Farm Supply’s tall cement storage silos loom large in the skyline southeast of Tenth Line and Bloomington Sideroad. With permission from General Manager, Richard McNamara, I photographed the 12 silos and environs, operating since 1979.
In mid-July, winter wheat is ready for harvesting. Fully loaded trucks rumble up the driveway to the office where farmers register the contents. Drivers proceed to the unloading dock beside the cement towers where a Canadian flag waves on high. Each truck is weighed before depositing grain through a grate above a storage pit, and weighed after the deposit. Good weather brings intense harvesting, and with two harvests for wheat, and fall harvests of soya beans and corn, the silo business is open for drop-offs for months, from early morning until late at night.
I watched Ballantrae area farmer, Jeff Taber, open the gates at the back of his truck. Slowly the truck’s hydraulics tilted the load, the grain flowing like a golden river through the grate. The young man said the variety of his crop is hard red wheat. Harvesting means working from dawn to sometimes after dark, seven days a week. Like many local farmers, Jeff worries that the long work hours have less appeal for young people today.
The first step for grading the quality of the product at St. Lawrence begins at this stage. Grader, Robert Baird, scoops grain samples from different times in the flow. When the truck’s bucket is empty, it is weighed again to calculate the weight of the unloaded crop.
The skills of St. Lawrence’s two Graders, Brad Howsam and Robert Baird are essential to the success of the operation. Brad and Robert explained to me in their office beside the silos, the first step is to measure water content in the grain with specialized equipment. Then under magnification, the grain is assessed for disease, or excess weeds that grow with the crop. This is a tense time for the farmer, as the poorest grade will designate his wheat for cattle feed and bring him the lowest price. But if like Jeff Taber’s crop the grain is dry, disease-free and with little evidence of weeds, the grain is rated as Grade 2, and pays the most.
Up to this point, the operation is visible to me. Graded grain that is deposited into the pit has to be shifted by a conveyor belt system. Inside the housing, multiple buckets scoop grain from the pit and deposit it into a closed conveyor belt assigned to specific silos (a moveable hopper and spout). The components of the system must be durable enough to shift tons of grain as dust-free and energy-efficiently as possible. Grains can be safely stored in silos for months, and even years if the grains are re-circulated in the system.
When grain buyers are ready to move grain out of storage at the silos, empty trucks are positioned at a second loading dock where the grain is released from above into containment. The process is gravity-driven from a valve and chute system. The grain is then covered and distributed by truck to processing facilities.
This is the nuts and bolts of the mechanical side of the grain silo business. But minute-by-minute price changes in the commodities market dictate how much the farmer will be paid for his graded grain.
According to an August report from Grain Farmers of Ontario, “Ontario wheat yields have been variable, as tricky harvest weather has challenged many producers. Off and on again rain showers have made it difficult for combines to roll.”
Robert, at St. Lawrence, said too much rain causes a disease, Fusarium, which I saw magnified as pinkish colouring on a sample. Fusarium downgrades a crop to cattle feed. But on the other hand, overly dry weather or drought causes poor crops too. And there are considerations for corn and soybean crops affected over the spring to fall growing period.
The next time you butter your toast, you might consider the hard work, long hours, processes and weather variables that culminate in the ease of buying at the store. Thank you to the tenacious farmers who are hanging on to farming traditions in Stouffville.