By Bill Rautenstrauch
Observer Staff Writer
The times keep changing in Wallowa County. And for the Wallowa County Grain Growers, diversity is the key to survival.
This year, the locally owned co-op dropped grain storage once an important aspect of the business from its list of services.
Yet overall, the business remains healthy.
"We concentrate on eliminating departments that aren't profitable, and on building the ones that are," said Grain Growers Manager Jim Butner.
"Grain used to be a big part of our business, but like other things, that has changed."
The cooperative, formed during World War II to help answer a huge demand for wheat, is nearly out of the grain business now.
The co-op's board of directors voted to pull the plug on storage last spring, Butner said.
"The (federal) government sold the last of its grain we had in storage, and government-owned grain basically was what our storage business had been the last few years," Butner said.
Butner, who has worked for the co-op for 44 years, said the grain storage part of the business has actually been eroding since the 1960s.
"The government started paying farmers to store grain, and it worked to their advantage to build storage facilities of their own," he said.
Butner added there is less tendency these days to store grain in anticipation of higher prices at a later date.
"For several years the best prices have come right at harvest time. The farmers load it on the truck and take it right to the docks at Lewiston," Butner said. "That allows them to eliminate the middle person."
Even though farmers are no longer storing grain locally, production of the crop appears to be holding steady in Wallowa County.
John Williams of the Wallowa County/Oregon State University Extension Service said that in the past several years, there have been minor downward shifts in production of cereal grains, and a rather large drop in barley production.
Overall, however, grain production remains steady. In 2000, some 19,500 acres of grain were harvested; in 2002, the number stood at 17,256.
Cattle and and hay, including specialty hays like orchard grass and timothy, are the county's most important crops now, Williams said.
Butner said diversity has been the key to dealing with the ever-changing agricultural market.
The co-op continues to sell and service farm machinery. Fertilizer and farm chemicals represent another major part of the business; there are Wallowa County Grain Growers farm chemical and fertilizers divisions in both Enterprise and Island City.
Bulk and retail petroleum products also play a major role in present-day operations.
In addition, the business has turned increasingly to retail consumer sales.
Counting the hardware store and feed warehouse, the Grain Growers store on Hurricane Creek Highway takes up 18,000 square feet.
"We've expanded into consumer products like ATVs and lawn care products," Butner said.