Driving down Wabash Avenue in January, it’s not uncommon to see a line of semi-trucks nearly a mile long that reaches from their destination to the South Street bridge.
The trucks wait in line for hours to unload their grain and beans at the Cargill facility in Lafayette, the preferred location for drivers who’d otherwise have to travel to Linden or Frankfort.
“If you cut somebody off, that’s when the trouble starts,” Romney farmer Al Davis said, chuckling and waiting for his turn Wednesday afternoon.
Davis waited three hours during his first trip into town Tuesday and four hours during his second.
He said those waiting could usually squeeze about two trips into a day, as the Cargill facility closes at 6 p.m. every day but Sunday, when it’s closed.
Davis has driven trucks since 1969 and farmed for the past 37 years. He said these kinds of long wait times are pretty usual for January.
Fellow truck driver and waiter-in-line Paul Risler agreed with that assessment.
“You can’t schedule or plan for anything,” the Attica farm worker said, as he explained that wait times at the facility can vary widely.
Sometimes the lot is completely empty or only has a few trucks, so Risler can park and be safe from police monitoring the streets. Officers might call out drivers parked in the road down the street, which means those drivers have to leave — losing their precious spots in line — and try again later.
“Anyone’s who’s in the lot, you’re safe,” Risler said.
The line can take a while to trudge through for any number of reasons, though Risler talked a lot about the frequency of machine breakdowns at Lafayette’s Cargill facility.
When weighing and delivering their products, farmers have to have their truck weighed with and without crops, have the product tested for purity and composition and dump everything into the one pit the Lafayette plant has.
From the scales to the read-out machines, many parts of this process break or have broken, Risler said, resulting in truckers having to just “hurry up and wait.”
Risler told the story of driving to a facility in Chicago, where the weighing equipment there clocked his empty truck in at 32,000 pounds, which he said was incorrect. When he contacted the facility, he was told every truck that day measured at 32,000 pounds — a problem when the weight of one’s full truck is used to calculate the pay a farmer earns for that load of product.
Now in Lafayette, Risler does what he said a lot of drivers do when they’re waiting for their turn on the scales.
“I’m sitting here on my phone,” he said.
Wait times also vary because of the rapid fluctuations in corn and soybean prices throughout the day. As prices can change anywhere from once a week to several times a day, once farmers see their products selling for more, it’s time to hustle to the grain bin.
Earning an additional 50 cents per bushel on 10 acres of land can result in an extra $880 for what the United States Department of Agriculture says is an average crop yield.
Prices have been declining for a while though, Risler said, and the wait times have been long for years.
“(Prices have) been low for the past four years,” he said.
Purdue’s Center for Commercial Agriculture released a report Tuesday on the financial stress on U.S. farms in conjunction with the market company CME Group.
Both the report and James Mintert, the Purdue Ag Economy Barometer’s principal investigator, note that despite a more negative perception of current crop conditions, many farmers remain hopeful for the future of their farms’ harvests.
“Agricultural producers in December were less optimistic about current economic conditions on their farms than a month earlier but remained optimistic about future economic conditions,” Mintert said in the report.
He also serves as the director of Purdue Center for Commercial Agriculture, and said the report’s results show how much U.S. farms vary in their economic conditions.
Conditions like this spring’s heavy rain and the near immediate dry season that followed weren’t great for farmers, Risler said, as they put a lot of stress on the plants.
Despite the status of this year’s harvest, truckers were still lined up to deliver crops as usual at Cargill Wednesday.
Risler recounted the time when a truck was hit by a train about two weeks ago on a railroad just a few steps away from the facility.
“That’ll really ruin your day,” he said.