Britton celebrates opening of grain terminal

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Farm Forum

BRITTON — The days of a long waits, uncompetitive markets and old facilities are over for ag producers near Britton.

That was the message Monday from Vaughn Maudal, the president of the Wheaton Dumont board of directors, at the grand opening of the new $32 million Wheaton Dumont Britton Grain Terminal.

“To the producers in the room, I know this day has been a long day coming,” Maudal said. “I know you’ve been frustrated over the years … I know this because we’ve also experienced the same growing pains. I’m pleased to announce that those days are coming to an end.”

Terminal officials, community members and local and state leaders — including Gov. Dennis Daugaard — were on hand in Britton to celebrate the end of a long journey.

For more than a decade, the board of directors at the Britton Farmers Elevator tried to put the new terminal project together by generating both public and private interest and attempting to build partnerships in the industry large enough to support a commitment of its size, said Philip Deal, Wheaton Dumont general manager.

“Ultimately, that’s where Wheaton Dumont came in,” he said.

About 20 years ago, main line railroads began to publish freight spreads on their tariffs that called for lower freight weight for bigger trains, Deal said. Eventually, the lowest freight weight was for trains that exceeded 100 cars in length, he said, which “ultimately spelled the doom for the future of small country elevators.”

In response, grain terminals capable of loading 100 cars began to sprout up across the country.

“But in the Britton area, that was somewhat out of reach since the elevator was served on a state-owned rail line,” Deal said.

But, in December 2014, Daugaard pledged $11.5 million in upgrades specifically for the Britton rail line.

Agriculture generates over $25 billion in economic activity and employs 115,000 people throughout South Dakota, Daugaard said Monday. And therefore, “agriculture is the foundation of South Dakota’s economy,” he said.

Because grain production is breaking records, he said, South Dakotans are consuming less and less of what is produced. The excess grain needs to be exported out of state, which makes dependable rail service essential, he said.

The state’s cooperation was necessary in order to get more rail cars on the tracks and through the area at faster speeds, Daugaard said. So far, about 8 miles of rail has been replaced, which means roughly 21 miles of rail still needs to be upgraded.

The former rail, at 80 pounds, is too weak to allow heavier trains to travel at efficient speeds. On those rails, trains travel at 10 mph.

Once all of the rail is replaced with heavier 112- to 115-pound rail, that speed will increase to 25 mph.

Picking up the pace of rail traffic will mean better prices for South Dakota producers, Daugaard said.

Wheaton Dumont’s partnership with United Grain Corp. in Vancouver, Wash., creates a more direct link between U.S. producers and their customers oversees, thereby increasing the market access for grain produced in northeast South Dakota, Deal said.

“The weakness that plagued us from the very beginning might ultimately lead to the terminal’s biggest strength,” Deal said.

“The very fact that the terminal is built on state-owned rail will allow us to ship grain on two Class 1 railroads, Burlington Northern and Canadian Pacific, thus increasing our options, reducing our risks, and increasing competition,” he said.

The new Britton grain terminal is capable of loading 120 cars.

The rest of the rail upgrades should be completed by September.

Decline started late 1940s

Historically speaking, had it not been for government intervention in the 1980s, the new Wheaton Dumont grain terminal just south of Britton might not exist.

“The rail line was going be abandoned,” Britton farmer Kirk Jones said. “My dad (Sen. Curtis Jones) and (Gov.) Bill Janklow saved it.”

By 1980, 60 percent of the tracks in South Dakota had been abandoned due to a failing rail industry, a decline that started in the late 1940s, according to the South Dakota Sate Historic Preservation Office.

Improvements to vehicles and roads, including the interstate system, meant rail passenger cars were doomed. And the farm economy throughout the region “continued to contract and consolidate,” the history reads. Thus, the branch rail lines serving rural communities became unprofitable.

That’s when the state government stepped in and purchased 1,254 miles of track under the newly formed South Dakota Rail Authority.

Upgrade benefits

In recent years, some of those lines — including 30 miles of track along the roughly 77-mile line between Geneseo Junction in North Dakota and Aberdeen — have been improved. The upgrades opened up the possibility for Wheaton Dumont’s new $32 million Britton Grain Terminal, which will be anything but unprofitable for the surrounding community and farmers, locals say.

“The website says we’ll see eight to 10 cents (more per bushel) through harvest,” Jones said.

Being able to load and shuttle 120 (rail) cars means the terminal should be able to offer the best freight-adjusted bids in the area, said Deal.

Additionally, a partnership between Wheaton Dumont and United Grain Corp. in Vancouver, Wash., has created a direct link between local grain production and customers overseas, which ultimately increases market access for farmers near Britton.

Britton should see economic benefits as well.

“Every indication is that it’s going to be a great addition to our community,” Mayor Clyde Fredrickson said. “Obviously, ag in our area is always very important, as it provides stability for the whole region.”

Improvements to the rail line are important to other industries as well, Fredrickson said, and the upgrade “ensures the rail will remain open for a very long time.”

Speedy service

Prior to opening July 18, expectations were that trucks would only be on site an average of four minutes. That is just how long it took Jones to dump his second load of grain at the terminal — four minutes.

“It’s just so fast,” he said, remembering sitting two or three hours at the previous elevator during harvest.

That elevator, in town at 610 Vander Horck St., will be used for storage.

Technology, including radio-frequency identification cards, is helping to speed up the process.

The cards are a fairly new concept, Deal said. They identify producers by truck and are like “a credit card of sorts” in the way they hold information, he said. In the first week of operation, Deal estimates at least a couple hundred radio-frequency identification cards were issued.

State’s role

The rail line is still state-owned, Deal said, which means the state’s cooperation was critical to the project.

“We wanted access, and the state wanted to provide it,” he said.

Deal previously told the American News that Wheaton Dumont was able to commit to the new terminal as soon as the state vowed to rehabilitate the rail line.

Gov. Dennis Daugaard announced the rail upgrades and grain elevator in December 2014 as part of more than $50 million in public and private money for rail improvements in South Dakota. The upgrades to the state-owned Britton Line totaled roughly $9 million, according to past American News accounts.

Years in making

Talk of a new facility began more than a decade ago. Jones was on the old elevator board, he said.

“We tried to start this in 2003. The old one — I think it was made in 1957 when everyone was growing wheat,” he said. “And then, now they were trying to get farmers with 140 bushels of corn through there.”

The Britton Farmers Elevator merged with Wheaton Dumont in 2010, Deal said. It’s taken the last five-plus years to get all the moving parts in place, he said. Ground broke April 2015.

Now there’s no comparison from the old to the new, Jones said.

Deal agrees.

“It’s a night-and-day difference. It’s like comparing a horse-drawn buggy to a semi hauling grain,” he said.

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By the numbers

• Cost: $32 million

• 300 acres of land

• 19,000 feet of rail

• Upright storage capacity: 4.59 million bushels

• Temporary storage capacity: 2.88 million bushels

• Wet holding capacity: 433,000 bushels

• Receiving capability per hour: 60,000 bushels

• Shipping capability per hour: 80,000 bushels

Source: Britton Grain Terminal