It’s the tail end of grain harvest in the Mid-South and the once steady stream of 18-wheelers has slowed at Griffin Grain and Griffin River Terminal. Now in its second year of buying from area producers, the sprawling 300-plus acre facility just south of Helena, Ark., contains a variety of farm-related enterprises: new grain bins, new conveyer systems to ferry commodities to and from barges, even a biofuel facility waiting to crank back up if the market ever justifies it.
The same is true for the currently shuttered company gin.
In late October, director Bill Ussery stands atop the Mississippi River levee and surveys the activity occurring below. When he came to work here decades ago, it was as a ginner. “We’re still in the ginning business, I hope. But we’re not actively ginning in 2015. The cotton acreage base among our customers was just too small to justify running.
“I’m a ginner and that makes me sad. Not long ago we were ginning over 100,000 bales in a season. We’ve been through several slumps — one happened a few years ago when we only ginned 4,000 bales. The acreage never fully came back and it was hard to recover from. We ginned about 11,000 bales in 2014.”
It’s no mystery, says Ussery: farmers dropping cotton is largely due to the market price. “But there are more minor reasons they’ve discovered. Everybody likes to get out of the field as early as possible, get the harvest done and fields prepped for next year. Most of the grain has been harvested while the cotton that is in the field is probably midway done with harvest here at the end of October.”
The trend to growing more grains kicked off around here some seven to 10 years ago. “Grain farming is just easier than cotton farming. For a few years, it’s been more profitable in the opinion of many. But with the current market structure, who knows where the profit will lie next year?”
Asked for some facility history, Ussery says, “David Griffith’s father built the family’s first elevator in the mid-1970s. In 1996, he bought another piece of property. Around 2002, we bought two more facilities from ADM. The construction of this facility — on over 320 acres — began and was completed last year.”
“The grain harvest here usually runs from August through late October. Technically, instead of selling grain delivered to local elevators on the river, we’re selling to New Orleans.
“For the four inland facilities we have — all of them south of Helena — we were already licensed for 4.8 million bushels. We only constructed for a 350,000-bushel capacity here. The aim isn’t to really accumulate loads of grain, but the bin construction and extra capacity are more for the farmers’ convenience in case we’re doing a barge swap. That way, if they’re pulling trucks up during the day, they can dump at the bins and get back to the field. If there’s a barge sitting at the dock, typically, the grain can go straight onto it.”
Griffin Grain clients are predominantly from Phillips County. “There are some from Desha County, and we’ve had grain come from across the river (in Mississippi).
“We want to get the trucks in and out of here as quickly as possible. The grain service business is just like ginning — there are lots of customers, and if we’re holding their harvest machines up, we’re doing them no favors. The name of the game is to get the truck unloaded and headed back to the combine.”
“This year, as far as shipping grain, the usual scenario is we’ll pay the barge freight and get the barge here. Then, we load the barge and get a certified grade out of Memphis. We know exactly what the specifications are for the commodity on the barge.
“We also do some forward, advance sales. But for the last two years, we normally have made sales early in the years as we load barges and get the certification. That allows the buyer to know what’s headed to them and makes it a bit more attractive.”
Right now, there are 16 to 20 employees on site. “Currently, we’re not loading and are putting things in storage. There’s high barge freight right now and a lower basis at the Gulf. That means we’ll likely defer loading anything else until the first of December.
“We do a put-through here on, roughly, 60,000 tons of fertilizer every year.”
The river's importance
The high freight rates on the river are due to a low river level and continuing dredging work by the Corps of Engineers about 60 miles south. “The river is shut down to southbound traffic during the day. That means barges may have a one- or two-day wait when bringing empties upriver. That holdup has driven freight 100 points in the last two weeks.
“We don’t see some of the river problems in the Mid-South that they have farther north with locks and things like that. But water levels here are always a concern. When the water level gets this low, you have to begin restricting drafts on the barges and that drives up the freight-per-bushel price.”
What about the state of the 2015 crops in the area?
“In general, yields have been pretty sketchy. Corn and rice were both probably off 10 percent. Grain sorghum yields were all over the place — some were okay, other spots were a disaster. The soybeans are pretty good, but the yields are also variable.”
Ussery says it’s hard to overstate the importance of river traffic to farmers “from counties close to the river. (They) rely on it. Get a couple of counties away from the river and you may have rice going to Stuttgart for processing or whatnot. But there’s a tremendous volume of grain that travels through the river facilities.
“As a whole, the river is incredibly important to the lifeblood of the Mid-South farmer. It takes their grain away for export and brings inputs to them. What’s going on with the river drives basis every day — it’s a huge factor.”