Northwest Wanderings is a column by photographer Alan Berner exploring places and communities throughout the Pacific Northwest.
This is a long way in time from four farmers and a pair of oxen harvesting 200 bushels of wheat in a 12-hour day. It only takes a minute for 32 tons of soft, white wheat to descend from the belly of a tractor-trailer through a grate into the mechanisms that move it to bins or ground piles at the McCoy grain elevator in Southeast Washington. It’s all about efficiency at the 4-year-old Pacific Northwest Farmers Cooperative (PNW) facility just outside Rosalia, population 565. Whitman County in the Palouse is “the highest wheat-producing county in America,” says Janet Schmidt with Washington State University Extension. The grain is heading to Portland by rail in 110-car trains. Schmidt says, “from Portland, out to the world.” It’s grown on very fertile soil that’s windblown and very deep. Here, it’s dry land farming. That means “nature is the watering can,” says Bud Reidner with PNW. Ninety percent of the county’s wheat is for export to become breads, crackers and noodles in Japan, South Korea and other Pacific Rim countries. Warehouse tech Terry Palmer puts some muscle into cranking open the doors at the bottom of the trailer. On the busiest of days, close to 450 trucks came through. With harvest season coming to a close in the county, now it’s fewer than 100 trucks each day. When a train is loaded and leaves for Portland and the grain is moved to a ship, it can be less than two days from the elevator to the dock and departure to the Far East. The ship will carry the equivalent of 2,200 truckloads of wheat — more than 2,000,000 bushels of grain. That’s a lot of bread.