Thumbing through his son’s issue of PC magazine, Mike shakes his head in amazement. “Just look at all the gizmos and gadgets available these days — and how cheap they are; I remember getting my first fax machine in the late ’80s — it cost almost $1,000 and spit out that curly paper! Didn’t have an e-mail address ‘til about 10 years ago. Time sure does fly….” Looking across the room at his grandson, Mike’s even more amazed to see his 4-year-old grandson easily doing something on an iPhone.
In the 1980s, grain traders had scores of trainees phoning bids to elevators every day, which slowly evolved to faxing bid sheets and eventually to website posting for immediate, widespread updating of bids. Now many country elevators combine that with mass transmission of bids or other information via e-mail or to iPhones and Blackberries to keep customers continually updated — wherever they are. The personal touch has given way to speed, efficiency and lower costs.
Enhanced technology allows elevators to buy larger volumes and operate with the same size or even smaller staffs than years ago. But the grain industry has evolved in many other ways over the decades that have facilitated expansion, consolidation and have increased efficiency.
- Interstate banking was authorized in the ’80s; borrowers are now able to secure dramatically larger operating credit lines through a single lender.
- Spreadsheets and word processing programs for PCs evolved rapidly by the early ’90s and became affordable even for small businesses, dramatically increasing managers’ ability to track and analyze operating costs and margins.
- As unbelievable as it seems, 100-car unit trains only came on the scene in the 1970s (although the first COLT train — the Cargill On Line trains — shipped out of Gilman, IL, in 1967). Unit trains and shuttles dramatically increased the efficiency of moving ever-larger crops.
- The shift from local rail agents to centralized, computerized management of trains has vastly improved fleet utilization, benefiting both the railroads and the grain industry.
- On the other hand, today’s container-shipments allow targeted loadings of smaller volumes of specialty crops, expanding access to niche markets.
- Automatic probes for grain trucks became common in the 1970s, lessening harvest backlogs.
- Computerized accounting wasn’t common in country elevators until the 1980s, although Agris was introduced in 1978. The availability of detailed centralized reporting of position reports and grain accounting facilitated the consolidation of the grain industry in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
- Knight Ridder (now DTN™) introduced the push-button quote box in the 1980s, bringing a whole new world of information to the country elevator at an affordable price.
- Options trading was reauthorized in 1985 at the Chicago Board of Trade after a 50-year absence, adding new risk-management tools for producers and merchandisers.
- 2006 brought side-by-side electronic and pit-trading of futures and options, without which the exchanges would have been hard-pressed to handle today’s massive trading volumes.
- Computerized controls of elevator operations now allow larger terminals to shift inventories or load trains efficiently and with minimal staff.
No single innovation is responsible for the grain industry’s ability to handle today’s volumes through facilities mostly built pre-1990 or even pre-1970. These were just a few examples, and collectively the changes have been dramatic! What stands out, however, is how many of the changes involve technology and the Internet.
The challenge now is to plan for the elevator and the grain business of the future. We can’t know what new software and hardware will be available in 10 years or even five years. But there are broad trends managers of today can embrace in planning for expansion, staff and customer service.