More than a hill of beans

Business: A Carroll County crop transport service draws soybean farmers eager to avoid long waits and high costs.

November 18, 2003|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Keith Warner remembers the last time he took a load of soybeans from his farm in western Carroll County to the port of Baltimore. He spent eight hours in a line of more than 80 trucks, waiting to unload at a barge terminal.

"Farmers don't want to get backed up like that," he says. "They have to get back to work on the farm, not wasting a day."

But Warner no longer frets about lost productivity, long waits or trekking miles to Baltimore. He's found a better way to get his soybeans to market -- and farmers from as far away as Virginia now bring their crops to him.

With a rail line running through his 1,500-acre farm in Keymar and the fertilizer and seed company that he operates there, Warner only had to install a $55,000 conveyor system to get another business off the ground. His "transloader" can load 15,000 bushels of soybean an hour into freight cars bound for Norfolk, Va.

"This is great for area farmers and easier than a run to Pennsylvania or Baltimore, which really got to be a hassle," said Lawrence E. Meeks, who farms about 3,000 acres in northern Carroll County and is president of the county Ag Board. "Now they can just run to Keymar."

In the three weeks since the transloader began operating, Warner, 39, has shipped more than 300,000 bushels of beans south.

On sunny days -- wet beans mean less money for farmers -- a steady stream of dump trucks and tractor-trailers file down the long driveway from Route 194 to Warner's Keymar Fertilizer Co.

As the trucks empty their cargo into a concrete pit, the conveyor system begins pulling the beans up a steel column that extends over the top of a rail car. The machine rapidly spews the beans into each freight car.

Once 15 cars are loaded, a Maryland Midland Railway locomotive hauls them to Glyndon, where CSX Railroad takes over the run to Virginia.

`That's the key'

"This really helps," said Taneytown farmer Stuart Peterson, while delivering his fifth load of soybeans to the facility.

"It's quick, nearby -- a real convenience. I am amazed at how fast they are moving rail cars in and out of here. That's the key."

With about 80 acres of soybeans yet to harvest, Peterson said he would make several more trips to the Keymar location throughout the fall.

Randy Clatterbuck hauled a load to the plant Friday from Harrisonburg, Va., a five-hour round trip that he said has already made several times.

"This place is easier to get to, and there are no crowds to deal with," he said.

Perdue Farms Inc., the poultry giant, had been scouting locations to improve shipping of soybeans from Central Maryland since the summer of 2001, when a thunderstorm severely damaged the port of Baltimore's only grain elevator at Locust Point. The wind and rain collapsed the facility's pier and crumpled its conveyor belt.

The closing forced farmers like Warner to truck their grain to other locations, farther afield and less convenient, and added significantly to their production costs. The alternative was to wait in lines to dump their crops straight into barges.

Perdue wanted a site within easy reach of grain producers, said Bradley H. Powers, retired deputy secretary of agriculture for Maryland who is now a consultant for Perdue.

The company briefly considered a location in Frederick, but quickly turned its sights to Carroll, where farmers have planted about 20,000 acres of soybeans this year.

The Warner farm, about four miles from Taneytown, "has a rail line, a truck scale, a good place to bring trucks and a man with a good reputation in the industry," Powers said. "He has already handled over 300,000 bushels and has shown that he can move 850 bushels from truck to train in under 10 minutes. That is fantastic turnaround."

`A real boost'

With a loan from Perdue, Keith Warner, and his wife, Sharon, made about $100,000 in improvements to the plant they've owned since 1994 and installed the transloader. Farmers who brought beans to the facility Friday were paid $7.55 a bushel.

Gabe Zepp, Carroll's agricultural marketing specialist, said the arrangement is "a real boost for local growers, Keymar Fertilizer and Maryland Midland. And it has all happened in time for the fall harvest."

State agriculture officials predict a record soybean harvest, so the Warners' business could continue through the end of the year and longer for farmers who have stored their soybeans in the hope of higher prices.

The 2003 soybean crop looks to be far above average, with yields at a five-year high of 37 bushels per acre and per-bushel prices nearly $2 higher than last year, said David Knopf, statistician with the Maryland Agricultural Statistics Service.

"Anytime you get this kind of money, you wish you had beans coming out of the sky," he said.

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