Two to four million tons of wheat are exported from the Port of Duluth-Superior each year, leaving on ships bound for destinations like the United Kingdom, Italy and Africa. Additionally, more than 100 railcars full of grain leave the Twin Ports daily, each holding about 100 tons or around 3,300 bushels.
And each load, railcar or ship, is inspected for grade and quality by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP).
“Our mission is to protect the integrity of U.S. grain shipped from the Twin Ports to international markets,” says Jeremy McPherson, director of the DATCP Bureau of Business and Trade Practices.
Inspecting The Wheat
Greg Ukkola is the lead grain inspector at Superior,overseeing six other inspectors as well as technicians and administrative staff. They verify that grain meets U.S. Department of Agriculture quality requirements.
The inspection work is crucial but takes place behind the scenes – at the port terminals and in the grain lab. Foreign buyers need to know the grain they purchase meets the grade on the bill of sale.
“We provide an independent, third-party verification that each load of grain meets the requirements for its grade,” Ukkola says.
Take durum wheat, used to make pasta and couscous. “There are three classes of durum, distinguished by the amount of amber color in the kernels,” Ukkola says. The class in most demand, hard amber durum, requires 75 percent of kernels to be a vitreous amber color.
Then there are different grades within the hard amber durum class. The highest grade is U.S. No. 1. There are four other grades, going up to U.S. No. 5; most durum wheat in commerce is No. 1 or 2.
Grades are determined by how the grain measures up based on several factors.
“Each grade of wheat has to meet certain standards for weight, color, moisture, dockage (foreign matter), and shrunken or broken kernels,” Ukkola says. “All told, there are about 100 different factors we look at across grain types.”
He started work as a grain technician in 1996. “Ten years into your career, you should have all the certifications needed to look at all 100 factors,” he says.
Pulling The Sample
To get the required 3,500-gram samples, probes pull a sample from each of the three compartments on a grain railcar. For ships, a diverter sampler machine cuts across the grain flow every 20 seconds as the ship is loaded to gather a uniform sample. Half the sample is filed for future reference, if needed.
A bushel’s “test weight” can vary, depending on the moisture and quality of the wheat in that bushel. The highest grades weigh at least 60 pounds per bushel; lower grades weigh less. Technicians called grain weighers calculate the test weight on each load.
Using the weight and quality evaluations from technicians, the grain inspector completes the inspection and verifies the grade. If the load fails inspection, the seller can request a re-inspection with a different inspector. There is also a federal appeal option that can be used for export loads.
The Twin Ports exported a lot of corn and soybeans in the past. Now, it is mostly wheat with occasional loads of canola, barley, flaxseed and sunflower seed.
“Our inspectors provide a high degree of confidence in both the quality and quantity of grain to buyers and sellers worldwide,” McPherson says.