BEMENT – If you're lucky enough to step inside a metal cage roughly 3 by 3 by 7 feet and ascend 120 feet inside the shaft of a grain elevator – before an employee compares grain elevators to sticks of dynamite, but after another worker watches the man-lift creep down the shaft and says, "It's getting closer and closer and the tension builds" – you'll be rewarded with some of the best views around.
It's not the Sears Tower, but the Topflight grain elevator in Bement, population 1,736, is this town's closest thing to a landmark and commercial hub.
"When you go to the top you can look around and see all the elevators. It sounds corny, but they are castles on the prairie," said Jack Warren, superintendent for the nearby Monticello grain elevator, also owned by Topflight. "In medieval times, each castle had its own area and, in a way, the elevators are the same."
Atop the Bement elevator, in one direction is a crispy brown cornfield; it's ready for harvest. Next to that is a muddy brown field; the crop there has already been harvested. Another square in the distance is yellow and golden. The soybeans are maturing and will be ready for harvest in a couple of weeks.
Nearby, on the mostly straight, narrow and gray rural roads, trucks and semis make their way to the elevator. They're loaded with grain.
It's the third week of September and nearing the peak of harvest season in East Central Illinois.
If the weather is clear, that means 80-hour – or longer – work weeks. It also means flurries of bee's wings or red snow, the name given to the dusty, russet-colored chaff from corn.
At Topflight, the bookkeeper also answers the phones, the controller fixes the computers and everyone lends a hand weighing trucks and taking grain samples as the farmers drive up.
On an easel in the front office, every day a staffer writes a new saying, whether it's a proverb, joke or phrase of encouragement. Manager Scott Docherty's favorite? "Blessed are the flexible for they shall not be bent out of shape."
The mood is light.
"I try not to work a whole lot," joked controller Chuck Bentley – while helping man the scale and preparing the co-op's monthly financial statement.
Throughout the day, farmers will stop by the office for some free popcorn, to check on grain prices and maybe seek market advice. On one Friday, elevator staffers handed out caramels to the farmers. On another Saturday, they grilled hot dogs and pork chops. They've had ice cream socials.
"It's a busy time, but it's fun. (Farmers) labor all year and now we come to the time they have to get the crop and take it to town. They're finding out what they'll end up with for income for the year," Docherty said.
Topflight, a farmer-owned grain cooperative, owns 18 elevators in the region. This year the co-op expects to take in about 19 million bushels of corn and 4.6 million bushels of soybeans. All that grain will come from roughly 150,000 to 160,000 acres in the surrounding area.
This year, harvest in East Central Illinois started shortly after Labor Day weekend. It will last about 50 to 60 days.
The co-op has 45 full-time employees. During harvest time that increases to 110. They hire people to run the scales and help unload grain. They have maintenance crews, truck drivers, safety personnel, grain marketers, financial people.
When he was a kid growing up in the area, seasonal employee Tony Brittenham from Bement used to "walk the beans" for area farmers. That was before the days of Roundup Ready soybeans; teens were paid to walk through soybean fields pulling out any weeds they saw.
"It's a lot of hours and you make good money. I like it because I know most of the farmers because I've been raised here all my life," Brittenham said.
"There are a lot of good people, a whole lot of good buds. They're always giving you hell for something," added Jim Murphy, superintendent for the Bement elevator.
Weighing in and dumping out
After the farmer leaves the field, he or she, a member of the family or a farm employee will drive the truck loaded with grain to the elevator. Topflight also offers trucks for hire.
At the elevator, the driver will ease the truck over a scale next to Topflight's office and an elevator staffer inserts (via controls inside the building) a grain probe into the center of the truck's load of grain. The probe vacuums out a grain sample.
Inside the office, someone will measure the test weight of the grain (its density) as well as the moisture and will notify the elevator staff if the grain needs to be dried down, to avoid bacterial problems and other issues.
A staffer notes the farm's code, which is printed on a piece of paper and placed in the passenger side front window, and enters the information into a computer.
"The whole process is automated. A few minutes and they're done," Bentley said.
Then it's on to the actual elevator.
They drive the truck over pits that are covered with grates. Elevator workers dump the grain into the pits. As they do so, the dust flies. Each pit can hold about 1,000 bushels. Corn goes into one pit, soybeans in another. Nongenetically modified grain is separated from genetically modified grain.
The driver never has to leave the truck.
Last year Topflight's average time for the whole process – from weighing in to dumping the grain – was six minutes, Docherty said.
"It's like a pit stop on a race track," Warren said.
A conveyor then takes the grain from the pit to what's called the leg and a series of plastic buckets carry the grain to the storage tanks or bins.
Years ago these buckets were metal, which caused safety problems as they brushed up against the metal sides of the shafts. If sparks flew, they could trigger an explosion because grain dust is explosive.
The grain is then stored in tanks, monitored with metal cables that dangle down through the center. The cables take temperature readings every eight feet.
"You want the temperature to be within 10 to 15 degrees of the outside temperatures," Murphy said.
You don't want the grain to get too hot because of bacteria as well as fire safety concerns, he said.
Murphy keeps track of what kind of grain and how much is in each tank on a blackboard in his office located near the grain pits.
"The chalkboard comes in handy when it gets busy and it gets so hectic I can't remember, plus I'm getting older," he said.
Elevator workers get dirty and dusty, but it's not too complicated a job, said Kevin Taylor of Bement, who was sweeping up stray grain that did not make it into the grate. Mainly, you need to make sure the leg is working and there are no backups, he said. Taylor started working at the Monticello elevator two weeks ago to help out during the harvest.
"I help unload and clean up. That's all there is to it. Then I go home, have something to eat and pass out. Then it's time to go back. It's better than being in a factory. There are worse jobs," he said.
So far this harvest season, things have been running smoothly, Warren said.
"We haven't had any breakdowns and no one has been hurt in the field," he said.
Marketing and shipping
Farmers will inform the elevator what to do with the grain. Like most elevators, Topflight offers several options. Farmers can sell their grain outright to the elevator for a cash price or enroll in marketing programs, where farmers may pay storage fees in order to sell the crop at a later time, hoping to sell when the price is higher. Prices for corn and soybeans are typically lower at harvest time.
Topflight will sell grain to processors such as Bunge in Danville, Archer Daniels Midland in Decatur and Solae in Gibson City, as well as to the southeastern U.S. to feed livestock.
Topflight tends to ship (via truck and rail) its corn in the morning and beans in the afternoon, said Derrick Bruhn, merchandising manager based in Monticello. As merchandising manager, Bruhn takes care of what happens with the grain after it lands in the elevator.
He works with several different brokerage firms and will buy and sell contracts during day and night.
It's not an easy business.
"Grain quality risk can be huge. Marketing risk is huge. And there are rising energy costs," Docherty said.
This year for example, Topflight will pay about $200,000 in fuel surcharges, he said.
Because buying and selling on the futures market is also risky, co-ops, which are regulated by the Illinois Department of Agriculture, are limited by how much money they can risk on the futures markets.
"If we buy 100,000 bushels, we have to sell 50,000 to ADM or on the Board (of Trade)," Docherty said.
Department of Agriculture inspectors also visit unannounced once a year to review the books and check grain storage and quality.