HONEYFORD, North Dakota — The oldest cooperative elevator in North Dakota will go down in history as the first in the United States to load an 8,500-foot unit train.
Farmers Elevator Co. of Honeyford, founded in 1905, on Monday, Nov. 1, 2021, loaded a 142-car train filled with 550,000 bushels of corn. The corn, grown by farmers in a 50-mile radius of the tiny northeast North Dakota town, was bound for an Alberta grain company, where it was to be distributed to cattle feedlots.
The Honeyford grain elevator is the first entity south of the U.S.-Canadian border to load an 8,500-foot — 1.6 mile-long — unit train.
''They were the first to invest in this new, revolutionary model in the United States and we’re excited to be able to see this train put together and loaded out to Alberta to feed some cows,” said Jon Harman, Canadian Pacific Railroad managing director of marketing and U.S. grain sales.
Harman, Northern Plains Railroad Companies CEO Gregg Haug; Kevin Peach, manager of Farmers Elevator Co. of Honeyford, and about a dozen farmers were on hand to watch the first few train cars get loaded on the afternoon of Nov. 1.
The owner of the Alberta grain company that was the unit train’s destination is a friend of Peach's whom he met and began doing business with decades ago.
“Contacts and friendships are very important,” Peach said. Besides the Alberta grain company, Peach developed a partnership with Northern Plains Railroad and has been doing business with it since the railroad company’s beginning in 1997.
“Northern Plains Railroad has invested to load these larger trains,” Haug said.
Northern Plains Railroad Companies, meanwhile, has made a commitment to haul grain for rural elevators, such as Honeyford.
Haug launched Northern Plains Railroad in 1997 after leaving his job working for a large railroad company. He knew that large railroad companies were selling small, branch lines, so he saw an opportunity to purchase them.
Haug’s company bought the rail line that runs by Honeyford in 2004 after it had been abandoned by BNSF.
''We reestablished service to the elevator and improved track conditions and now, they're our largest customer,” Haug said.
His company’s niche is providing rail service to country elevators like the one in Honeyford, he said.
“It’s really what we’ve been doing for 25 years out here. We work hard to make sure these guys stay competitive, and the elevators are working with the producers to get the best price, and that just depends on the best sales and service,” Haug said.
Haug’s company owns a total of about 400 miles of railroad track that runs from Thief River Falls, Minnesota, to Kenmare, North Dakota, and another line that runs to Devils Lake, North Dakota.
“Our job here is serving the elevators, and the Canadian Pacific hands us the cars off in Thief River Falls,” Haug said. “We distribute the empties out here, collect the empties and ship them back to Thief River Falls and connect them with the Canadian Pacific,” Haug said.
“The Honeyford Farmers Elevator has been a great customer and we look forward to helping them to continue to grow and be on the leading edge of technology with the 8,500-foot trains,” Harman said
“We expect this to be the model of the future,” he said. “On the Canadian side, the 8,500 has been done for a number of years, and in the U.S., it’s just starting to spread,” he said.
The upgrades are more complicated for grain elevators that don’t have as much open space surrounding it, said Stu Letcher, North Dakota Grain Dealers executive vice president. Farmers Elevator of Honeyford is in the middle of the prairie with the nearest town 3.5 miles from it.
For many elevators, the most efficient way for elevators to load shuttle trains is to put in a system of circle tracks, Letcher said.
''The Honeyford situation is unique. They have a track going past the elevators. They can put in a lot of cars,” he said.
Still, Letcher believes that, eventually, other U.S. grain elevators will upgrade their facilities to handle the 8,500-foot trains.
''I don’t know if it will be adopted overnight. Maybe down the road, it may be something that is accepted," he said.
Loading the large train was a milestone for the Honeyford cooperative, said Peach. Peach, who has managed the Farmers Elevator of Honeyford for 35 years, and his seven-member board, have striven to be forward-thinking in making decisions about transportation, infrastructure and marketing, he said.
Peach’s good relationships with the railroad companies and grain buyers is beneficial to Farmers Elevator of Honeyford because he gains good insight into their future needs , said Dan Sletten, secretary-treasurer of the grain elevator’s seven-member board.
When Peach presents the board with the information, the board carefully considers whether to move forward, Sletten said, noting that board members meet with lenders to determine if the plan is financially feasible.
"What we were targeting is to be on the cutting edge of the railroad industry, the cutting edge of technology and loading the first 142-car train, or the first 8,500-foot train,” Peach said.
The railroad drives what happens in the grain industry, so it’s important for elevators to get on board when it recommends remodeling their facilities to accommodate larger trains, he said.
''You either went with it, got ahead of it or it left you. We did not want to be left. We wanted to be open, and we’re here to service our co-op members,” Peach said. “We’ve worked hard to get to that point, invested a lot of money to get to that point.
“We looked years down the road and said, ‘We think that’s where it’s going to go,’ and positioned for that time.”
The investment in the infrastructure needed to handle the large trains has paid off, he said.
''The larger, the bigger, is more efficient," Peach said. "We get a freight break. Being a partner with a short line definitely has its advantages; you're much more within and able to help the customers.”