WATERVILLE — The installation of LocalTel wireless internet on top of a HighLine grain silo in Waterville required Martin Wachtel to venture to the top of the structure, perfect for a bird's perch, several times. The trek is accomplished through either climbing a ladder or pulling himself up on a manual elevator that operates on a wooden track.
“Keeps me in shape,” Wachtel said.
There are no plans to install an electric elevator at the facility, but the Waterville-based grain co-op has worked to upgrade just about every other system in its network. As HighLine’s IT director, Wachtel is tasked with implementing the changes.
“We want more information. Technology can give us that more information,” Wachtel said. “And that old technology is becoming so expensive that it’s prohibitively hurting us to not move forward.”
Some of the changes are small. A new laser printer in Waterville is five times cheaper to operate than the old one. But other changes, like the new internet technology on top of the silos, has more impact. Martin said HighLine’s two main pushes are to automate processes and go paperless wherever possible.
“We’re not unique,” said Paul Katovich, CEO of HighLine Grain Growers. “This is what the grain industry is going to because it’s been so labor-intensive for so long.”
A majority of HighLine's $1.6 million annual capital projects budget is directed at improving the technical capabilities of systems designed in the 1980s.
Katovich said in the past 18 months HighLine has spent between $20,000 and $30,000 on hardware and computer upgrades and more than twice as much on the labor needed to install and maintain the technology.
Upgrades to scales, loading and unloading equipment and grading equipment have cost between $300,000 and $700,000 annually over the past three years.
HighLine's newest facility in Four Lakes, a shuttle loader and unloader, was a $30 million investment by the co-cop.
"These investments are made with the future in mind," Katovich said. "Most of these investments will take years or decades to pay for themselves."
A push toward paperless
Before the modernization, HighLine’s process was slowed by reliance on paper records. That was partly due to state regulations, which require papers to be kept for auditing purposes. After a farmer dropped a load off and a sample was taken to determine quality, it could take up to a day before the information was uploaded into a computer, as a piece of paper listing the load’s weight and quality worked its way through the system.
Now, Ty Jessup, HighLine’s marketing manager, can see the information collected at a grain elevator within 15 minutes of a truck arriving.
“If everything runs properly and up to date, and people are putting stuff in, Ty can see what has come in almost instantaneously,” Wachtel said. “We got almost a whole day’s savings in a lot of the information our foreman and some marketers are looking for.”
The digitalization of the process allows Jessup to sell the grain easier since he knows exactly how much farmers are dropping off, and what the quality is.
“The more information that we can get from the scale to our marketer, the faster that we can do that, the more capabilities that he has to take that information and market the grain,” Wachtel said. “He needs to know pretty much what we have, right when we get it so that he knows what he can sell.”
Both growers and customers are eager for the influx of information. Katovich said overseas buyers have become more specific regarding the type of wheat they’re looking for, while growers are interested in their crop.
“They want to know what they delivered, they want to know the quality that they delivered,” Katovich said. “There’s more differentiation over time in quality specifications. A generation ago, white wheat was white wheat. People weren’t really paying attention to these details.”
There’s an app for that
Another big shift is how farmers view their contracts, settlements, grain prices and other critical pieces of information. HighLine's old system involved updating whiteboards and reader boards twice a day at their offices to tell farmers what the price of grain was. That information has been digitized in an app called Bushel, while also being displayed on HighLine’s website.
Used by around 50,000 farmers throughout the country, Wachtel said it was a challenge to move older growers to the app. Some farmers simply enjoyed the interaction, while others lacked the smartphones required to use the app.
Wachtel has had to be mindful of the technology gap, and careful when pushing farmers to use email and text notifications.
“Technology hurdles are not only on our end but also on the farmer’s end,” Wachtel said. “And since we’re trying to do things for them, that adds an extra hurdle for me because I have to figure out ‘what’s a middle ground, right?’ I can’t just go from paper tickets to emails.”
As older farmers retire, Wachtel said it’s been easier to introduce the technology to the next generation, who are eager to get information quickly.
A push toward automation
Over the next 10 years, Katovich said HighLine will look to increase Programmable Logic Controls (PLCs) at their facilities. PLCs automate systems previously performed by hand, such as elevator systems and quality checks.
For example, during harvest, HighLine operates three dump pits at its Waterville facility, each manned by someone who opens and closes the gates as trucks pull in to dump their grain. A fourth person is stationed at the scale, weighing the trucks as they enter and leave. And a fifth is running around, opening grain silos and performing other tasks.
“If you can automate all those dump gates, and all those gates up on top of the bins, then you could potentially run all three of those pits with one guy,” Martin said.
It’s not as simple as outfitting facilities with new systems. Highline's Waterville facility is more than 100 years old, which creates challenges, while other facilities that span to Airway Heights and down to the state's southern border are used sparingly and may not be worth the investment.
“The challenge for us is right now, we have about 50 elevators,” Katovich said. “Most of them, the vast majority of them, don’t even take in a million bushels a year. So, what is the cost-benefit analysis of putting in a very expensive computer-controlled system?”
And while they modernize facilities, Katovich said it’s critical to not overwhelm farmers with a new system.
“If we’re doing our job correctly, they have a lot of things in their world to worry about,” he said. “They can concentrate that effort somewhere else that makes them more effective. If they’re constantly worried about the elevator, that means they’re not paying attention to some other detail in their world that they should be.”