Pitchford Elevator Co. Inc.
Grain elevators date back to the early 1840s, invented by merchant Joseph Dart and engineer Robert Dunbar in Buffalo, N.Y. With steam-powered flour mills developed by Oliver Evans as a model, the pair invented the marine leg, which scooped loose grain out of the hulls of ships, elevating the product to the top of a marine tower.
A lifeline for farmers
Early grain elevators and bins were constructed out of framed or cribbed wood, highly prone to fire, but now, elevator bins, tanks and silos are typically construction from steel or reinforced concrete. While grain elevator technology and design has improved, these facilities remain a lifeline for thousands of rural agricultural communities throughout the central U.S.
Southern Illinois is home to many corn, soybean and wheat farms that fuel major cities across the country. Just 60 miles east of St. Louis is Richview, Ill., home to a local grain elevator that’s been supporting area farmers for more than 50 years, Pitchford Elevator Co. Inc. (Pitchford).
“We’re the only privately owned grain elevator that’s not owned by a cooperative in this area,” reveals Shawn Knepp, current general manager of Pitchford. “We’re a full-service grain facility, but we do much more than just grain. Because grain is such a seasonal commodity, Pitchford sells and applies fertilizer, chemicals and seed, in addition to hauling grain. We deal with some of the biggest names in the ag-industry, such as Monsanto.”
Pitchford has been serving producers in southern Illinois since the early 1960s when Lester Pitchford, original founder and owner, took his family farming operation and turned it into something much larger. “Pitchford originated as a small family farm,” recounts Knepp. “Lester started putting bins up and began to gradually build from there. He’s 94 years old now and is still involved with the operation.”
“His grandson, Brian Grathwohl, also works at the elevator and has been involved for over 25 years,” adds Knepp. “I’ve been with the company since 2002, but unlike many in this industry, I wasn’t raised on a farm.” Instead, Knepp learned the ropes in accounting, software and business management – all viable skills that have enriched Pitchford.
Today, Pitchford covers a 45-mile radius throughout southern Illinois with five elevator locations and 42 employees. “We cover some ground, but one of the five locations is only utilized during harvest time,” says Knepp. “We now have a 4 million bushel capacity for soft red wheat, soybeans and corn.”
It’s all in volume
Knepp says Pitchford’s biggest challenge, and any grain elevator’s for that matter, is to consistently maintain volume. “Anyone in the grain handling business will tell you it’s a matter of volume,” he explains. “Without volume you won’t survive, because handling 1 million bushels versus 4 million is a whole different story.”
Pitchford’s goal is to increase its grain volume in coming years. According to Knepp, there is more on the farm grain bin storage going up every year, so that reduces the number of bushels the elevator handles. “The seed genetics have improved over the years to increase the farmers’ yields, and generate more bushels from the same acre of land,” he continues. “We strive to keep building on our customer service all the time to keep our customers coming back year after year.”
Rain makes the grain
However, on the production side, Knepp says the only guarantee is change and fluctuation. “Fall 2012 was one of our worst years in history in the grain crop, but fall 2013 was one of our best harvest years,” he reveals. “The old adage, ‘rain makes grain’ is very true; everything depends on rainfall and the weather in this business.”
The weather coupled with the headaches of keeping a small business up and running equals certain struggles for Pitchford. “Workers’ comp and federal health insurance regulations have set us back,” admits Knepp. “Illinois is a tough state as far as workers’ comp laws, but it all comes with the challenges of keeping a small business going.”
“Fuel is a huge expense for us and a challenge, because we run our own trucks,” adds Knepp. Despite a few hurdles, Knepp says he wouldn’t trade his job for another any day. “Every day is different, every year is different,” he explains. “It’s an interesting business, because there’s no monotony; it’s never the same day to day.” What has remained the same is Pitchford Elevator Co. Inc.’s commitment to serving area farmers for more than 50 years as a viable lifeline for mass amounts of crops.