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  Look! It's Something Vertical

by Dave Yanko
New Brunswick? I don't think so.
- all photos courtesy Donna Banks
New Brunswick? I don't think so.

We're typecast.

When Saskatchewan makes the national television news here in Canada, the reporter is duty bound to stand in front of a grain elevator to do the standup portion of the piece. When magazines, newspapers, the Net. . . when any form of media requires an image representing Saskatchewan, the trusty grain elevator is the one-size-fits-all solution.

In the minds of many, Saskatchewan equals grain elevators. We are grain elevators.

And we grain elevators here at Virtual Saskatchewan think it's high time someone explains the function behind our photogenic form.

If you already understand how a grain elevator works (or if you don't care, and shame on you for that), go ahead and peel off from the squadron. If you're curious, on the other hand, read on. And the next time you see one of us behind a reporter, or standing in silhouette before a color-splashed sunset, remember: we're more than calendar fodder.

For our "behind-the-scenic" view of a prairie elevator, we enlisted the assistance of Darwin Webster, a genteel man who oversees the operation of the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool elevator at Floral, just east of Saskatoon.

"It's not that complicated, really," says Darwin.

He's right. So here we go. Oh, and feel free to interrupt at any time to ask a question, refer to the cut-away graphic, or to take a moment to muse on one of the wistful pics of our subject matter.

Anatomy of a symbol. Questions?
- courtesy Saskatchewan Wheat Pool
Anatomy of a symbol. Questions?
1 Driveway and receiving area
2 Elevating tag
3 Telescoping head
4 Distributor
5 Overhead shipping scale
6 Boxcar surge bin
7 Hopper car surge bin
8 Boxcar loading spout
9 Hopper car loading spout
10 Storage bin
11 Boot tank
12 Cleaner bin
13 Grain cleaner
14 Dust control unit

Small-town prairie elevators have three main functions: collecting and storing grain received from local farmers; loading the stored grain into trains and trucks for transport to buyers; and providing a gathering place for farmers to debate agricultural politics while pretending to shop for fertilizer. For our purposes, we'll concern ourselves with the first two functions, only.

When a farmer brings a truckload of wheat to the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool's Floral elevator, a typical "crib" style elevator constructed of wood in the 1920s, he drives into the building on a ramp that leads onto a huge platform scale. After Darwin records the loaded weight of the truck, the grain is dumped through a small hatch at the rear of the truck box, down through a floor grate and into the "pit". The pit can hold about 10 tonnes of grain, enough volume to accommodate the load from a small grain truck.

While the grain is streaming into the pit, one of Darwin's two or three employees scoops out samples used to determine its moisture content, grade, protein value and dockage, which is the amount of undesirable material (like wheat seeds) in the grain. When the truck's empty, it's weighed again to determine the weight of the grain.

"After we're finished checking everything," says Darwin, "the farmer gets an elevator receipt for the load of grain. As soon as we know what the grade and protein value of the grain is, we can bin it."

Understanding how Darwin moves the grain from pit to storage bin, or from the bin into a waiting rail car called a "hopper", is to understand how a grain elevator functions.

Imagine a vertical conveyor belt that leads from the bottom of the underground pit to the top of the grain elevator 25 metres (80 feet) above floor level. Attached to this belt are dozens of small buckets which hoist the grain from the pit to the "distributor" situated at the top of the elevator. This conveyance system is called the "elevator leg", and it can move 100 tonnes of grain per hour.
The annex is used for additional storage capacity.
The annex is used for additional storage capacity.

The distributor directs the flow of grain from the elevator leg to a pipe that leads to the appropriate storage bin - there are 21 bins in the main elevator at Floral and another two dozen in the adjacent annex.

Darwin selects the destination bin by turning a large, steel, wall-mounted wheel that manipulates the distributor 25 metres above. By rotating the wheel to align its indicator arrow with one of the 21 bin numbers located on the wall surrounding it, he adjusts the distributor to direct the flow into the bin used to store the same type and grade of grain. Grain to be stored in the annex follows the same route from the pit to the top of the elevator leg, where another leg shuttles it over to one of two distributors located at the top of the annex.

All grain elevators are constructed adjacent to railway tracks, since rail is the primary mode of transporting grain from elevator to buyer (or port). To remove grain from a bin and load it onto a waiting train, Darwin walks to the appropriate bin and opens a slide that allows the grain to flow out of the bottom of the bin into "drag auger" located under the floor of the elevator. The auger shuttles the grain horizontally to a holding container in the rear of the grain elevator.

Outgoing grain can be weighed in the ground-level holding container, or in a scale situated high inside the building. A rear elevator leg is used to move the grain to the overhead scale, as well as to transport it up to the mouth of a swivelling pipe used to fill the hopper cars waiting on the track at the back of the elevator. A man attached to a safety line stands on top of the hopper car and directs the grain flow into each car. When one car is full, another is advanced into the loading area using a motorized tow rope.

There you have it. The simple function behind a prairie symbol.
A Saskatchewan resident, waiting for a train.
A Saskatchewan resident, waiting for a train.

But alas, all good things must come to an end. And so it is with the venerable crib-style elevator that punctuates the prairies with poetic pulchritude.

Saskatchewan's old country elevators are slowly giving way to new, ultra-efficient, technologically-advanced, "high-throughput" elevators constructed of slip-formed cylindrical concrete. They'll be fewer in number and far less photogenic.

And this leads one to wonder what future media will do when the call comes forth for a "typical Saskatchewan image".

How about the bald eagle? The Churchill River region of Saskatchewan contains the second-highest density of nesting bald eagles in North America.

Hmmm. Maybe that symbol's already taken. . . .

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