Mother Nature plus high tech equals more grain for the world

Cargill's Houston grain terminal is one example of how well the US agricultural export system works.

Through the office windows, a visitor watches grain pouring into two ships destined for Africa. Overhead, a man at a computer bank controls every step of the operation. With video screens monitoring six types of wheat, corn, soybeans, and grain sorghum, equipment fills and empties the terminal's 172 towering grain bins to match each order.

An endless string of giant railroad hopper cars unloads more grain for export. Three seesaw truck dumps, upending 18-wheelers like toys, add to the 24 -hour flow.

This elevator anchors the southern end of a grain ''pipeline'' stretching north to the Canadian border.

Terminal manager Frank Hemmen explains that an international grain merchant performs two basic functions: ''We move grain from places where there is too much to places where there is not enough . . . and we hold grain from times when there is too much to times when there is not enough.''

Mr. Hemmen says an $18-million modernization program has upgraded the Houston elevator ''to enable us to get the grain from rail cars to vessels at a lower cost per bushel.'' Maximum efficiency is essential, he adds, because he will put 300 million bushels through his elevator this year, if he finds foreign customers. And foreign customers will buy elsewhere if they can find grain at lower prices.

The phone rings. Can he fill an order for 18,000 tons of grain sorghum? He makes a few quick calculations on his current stock, how much sorghum is traveling toward him by rail, how much more he can buy, and calmly accepts the order. With today's high interest rates, he can't afford to store grain. So there's always a scramble to buy it and have it reach the elevator in time to meet his customer's ship.

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