The towering silos of United Grain are a halfway point for the flow of grain and beans that farmers up the Columbia River harvest and people in Asia consume.
The company, in its 52nd year, is still dealing with unique challenges caused by the pandemic.
“It’s been difficult this year,” said Brian Liedl, the company’s director of merchandising.
United Grain, which operates the largest grain export facility on the West Coast at the Port of Vancouver, is seeing trains costing much more and being delayed at a higher rate, causing managers to resort to trucks.
Grain supply is running low at times, customers are placing orders much further in advance and the ships that carry the grain overseas are chronically delayed.
“Vessels are taking a long time to unload in Asia,” Liedl said. “Some boats are sitting for weeks before they can get to port.”
On top of that, a drought in the Northern Great Plains is causing shortages, raising prices. And while revenue and the prices have increased, it’s offset by the cost of goods and transportation; inflation is hitting United Grain like every other business.
The Asian countries the company supplies with food are at a critical level for food shortages, said Liedl.
“There’s high anxiety from countries wanting to pre-order,” Liedl said.
Before the pandemic, a typical order could be between 30 to 60 days in advance of the delivery, but now it’s more like 90 to 120 days.
United Grain, with its towering silos as part of a $100 million investment in the past decade, hasn’t had to short any customer orders, Liedl said.
Another factor in the rising cost of business: Railroad companies have raised their rates twice in the past year, he said. What was once a $15,000 for a daily rate is now up to $50,000.
“We don’t really control prices. We respond to them,” said Augusto Bassanini, president and CEO of United Grain.
Inside United Grain’s offices on the seventh story of the Riverview Tower in downtown Vancouver, workers are enjoying a newly renovated space during the pandemic. They work on a hybrid remote-work model, where they’re in the office on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, and they work the other two days remotely — with flexibility. Bassanini said it’s critical to the mental health of the employees.
Tyson Raymond harvests dryland winter wheat, barley and winter canola near Pendelton, Ore., and sells it to United Grain. He said it’s been a difficult year with dry, hot conditions.
“We rely 100 percent on rain,” he said. ‘We’ve been significantly down.”
Raymond estimates yields were down between 25 and 30 percent in July.
The upshot of it is that farmers are becoming more efficient with water and fertilizer, he said.
“The last couple of years has presented unique challenges. It’s been encouraging to see people overcome them,” he said. “Were learning how to manage fertilizer better because it’s getting expensive and difficult to find. There’s a real focus on doing more with less and maintaining quality.”