Grain Silos and Wind Turbines are both common sights in eastern Washington. Loco Steve. Horse Heaven & Shepherds Flat. Used under Creative Commons License From Flickr.

If you live in farm country, you’ve probably seen cement or metal grain silos dotting the landscape. But did you ever think about how all that grain storage actually works?

Back in June of last year, I got to visit a heritage grain farm near Colfax Washington, as part of a Washington Tilth farm tour. We visited Palouse Colony Farm, and learned about their efforts to grow the traditional landrace grains that were grown in the area over 100 years ago. It was fascinating.

We also visited Joseph’s Grainery, where they package grains grown in the local area in small batches and sell wholesale to stores or direct to the consumer. It’s always struck me dumbfounded that we live in one of the premier grain growing regions in the country, yet it is next to impossible to find grains in our grocery stores that were not grown in the midwest, or even overseas. Something like 90% of all the grains grown on the Palouse are shipped to Asia.

One of the things Joseph’s Grainery talked about was the fact that their grains contain fewer pesticide residues, because they are stored in smaller batches and therefore don’t require the level of post harvest treatments that traditional massive grain storage silos require. Some of their customers who thought they had an issue with wheat discovered from eating their grain that they more likely have an issue with one of the pesticide residues on the commercial grains they had been eating.

green stink bug

Maybe not the same species of bug that I encountered as a seven year old in that wheat bin, but close enough.

I had literally never thought about the fact that grain is treated with various chemicals post harvest in order to maintain its quality while in storage for long periods of time. But when you stop and think about it, it makes perfect sense. Wheat is often harvested in hot weather, and any insects, molds, fungi and bacteria that are present get carried along for the ride. I have a memory of a summer ride in a combine while visiting my Uncle Paul in Montana when I was about seven. And sitting in this big pile of wheat in the back of a harvest truck, and these green “stink bugs” crawling in the wheat with me, and being kind of freaked out by them.

Guess what? Those bugs are likely still in there when all that wheat gets dumped into those huge grain silos. And that mass of grain is nice and toasty warm. The perfect climate for stuff to grow.

palouse heritage farm

Palouse Colony Farm. © Palouse Heritage. Getting to see this historic farm as its slowly restored to its historic land ethic was a real treat.

Grains are often stored in bulk for long periods of time, waiting for a buyer, or trying to time the market for the highest profit. Aside from the bug issues, the two biggest enemies of maintaining quality in long term storage are moisture and temperature. Grains contain not just carbohydrates, but proteins and fats. Just like with your own batch of fresh ground whole wheat flour, things are going to stay fresh and tasty much longer if you can store that flour at a low temperature and protected from moisture – which is why its often recommended to store whole wheat flour in a sealed container in your freezer. Now imagine trying to duplicate that on a massive scale!

Evidently, grain silos have gone high tech (and yes, there’s an app for that) with all kinds of monitoring equipment and aerators to keep grain cool and dry and reduce harvest temperatures quickly. Everything from how clean and dry the grain is when it enters the silo, to how much of it is broken kernels, to the type of silo (some sweat with temperature changes, causing moisture issues, some aren’t well sealed to outside moisture or pests etc.) and how clean the silo is before its filled can make a difference. Evidently insect activity falls off when temperatures go below 50 degrees, so fast cooling is critical. Grain at the right temperature and moisture level can be stored for up to a year.

And then, there are the various sprays. Sprays that go onto the sides of the empty silo. Protectants that coat the grain just before it reaches the bin. Fumigants to kill insects in the mass of grain in the bin (because lets face it, in the summer, there is no way to get that mass of grain down to 50 degrees or below). Surface treatments to provide a protective barrier to kill any insects that might climb/fall into the bin after the bin is filled. In short, a LOT of sprays. And that’s not taking into consideration what’s already in/on the grain from the growing season.

Joseph's Grainery Barley Flour

Screenshot from the Joseph’s Grainery online store.

Those sprays, of course, are all regulated.  And a bit of google research would turn up scholarly articles on what is currently being used, which evidently isn’t as toxic as it used to be. But dang, that’s a lot of treatments on something with a large surface to mass ratio (ie there’s a lot of outside to get coated and not a lot of inside to later dilute that coating once the grain is ground). And its not like you can rinse it off before cooking it, like you can with dried legumes. I have no idea what the differences are between storage of organic and non-organic grains, when it comes to pesticides used, or pesticide residue. But as always, I would choose organic when at all possible, unless the farmer is very transparent about their farming practices.

Yet one more argument for buying direct from your small farmer, rather than from a mass of commingled commercial grain from many huge farms. (As an aside, individual farms are actually having a difficult time finding processors who can turn their grains to flours, because all of the grain the mills receive are comingled and it is impossible to keep one individual farms grains separate).

Definitely something to think about.

© 2019 Miles Away Farm, where we’re mostly avoiding grains in general as a way to keep father time from packing on any more pounds, but do appreciate our own home grown corn flours.