Chehalis grain

From left, Northwest Agriculture Business Center project manager Mike Peroni, Port of Chehalis Director Randy Mueller and Lewis County, Wash., farmer Dave Fenn look at drawings for a proposed grain storage and distribution center at a meeting April 16 at the port. Fenn is president of a growers cooperative that formed Dec. 13 to operate the center.

In an effort to establish a new market for grain grown in their region, six farmers formed a cooperative Friday, intending to distribute it by rail from the Port of Chehalis in Lewis County, Wash.

The founding members of the Southwest Washington Growers Cooperative paid $100 apiece for a share. The co-op and its partners, including the port, still need to line up public funding to build silos.

“I hope anyone in the area who grows grain and wants to sell it out of the area will join the co-op,” the cooperative’s president, Dave Fenn, said. “It’s not pie-in-the-sky. It will be an actual facility that will have extensive use.”

The campaign to grow and move grain stems from farmers seeking a new market. A food processor stopped contracting to buy vegetables from them in 2017. Another area cannery went bankrupt in 2008.

A Washington State University Extension survey found that Puget Sound brewers and bakers were interested in buying locally grown wheat, oats and barley. Farmers in the region, however, have no way other than trucks to move the grain to Puget Sound or Portland.

A grain storage and distribution center has broad support. The port has provided the land, and Lewis County commissioners allocated $800,000 for a rail spur that is expected to be built by late spring.

The Lewis County Farm Bureau contributed $5,000 toward a $35,000 conveyor belt to move grain from trucks to railcars this summer. Mike Peroni, project manager for the nonprofit Northwest Agricultural Business Center, said he was optimistic the rest of the money will be raised.

The belt would be temporary, but would allow farmers to immediately provide barley to Great Western Malting Co. in Vancouver, according to project organizers.

For the permanent silos and conveyance system, organizers hope to raise more than $2 million. The facility could be built in phases.

Having some storage by 2021 probably will depend on whether state lawmakers allocate money in the 2020 capital budget, Peroni said.

The budget will supplement the main two-year capital budget legislators passed last year.

Peroni said publicly funded silos and distribution network would help farmers stay on the land.

“There’s a huge amount of public benefit in maintaining open space,” he said. “Western Washington is at a point where lawmakers and citizens need to decide if (commercial agriculture) is important or not.”

The grain silos would occupy a portion of an 8-acre section of the port’s industrial park. Port Director Randy Mueller said the port hopes other farm-related businesses will also move there.

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