Morrow County Grain Growers, a farm supply and marketing cooperative based in northeast Oregon, broke ground Wednesday morning on a major expansion of its grain elevator and shipping terminal along the Columbia River in Boardman.

With support from a $2.5 million state grant, the co-op plans to build a new rail unloading facility at the 35-year-old terminal, transferring grain from trains onto river barges en route to Portland for export.

Kevin Gray, MCGG general manager, said the project will help relieve rail congestion down the Columbia River Gorge. Trains hauling wheat and corn from the Midwest can instead offload at the Boardman elevator and take advantage of faster, more efficient river transport.

Of course, the added bushels also mean more business for the co-op. Gray said they will boost capacity at the elevator by 600,000 bushels, and hire up to five new employees after construction is finished in February 2019.

“This is really a strategic upgrade that’s going to add new life to the elevator,” Gray said. “From a logistics standpoint, we really think this is going to improve the amount of grain that works its way down the Columbia River system.”

Morrow County Grain Growers purchased an interest in the Boardman Grain Elevator in 2013, and co-owns the facility with the Port of Morrow. It is located in the port’s East Beach Industrial Park, near the Pacific Ethanol plant.

A Union Pacific main line runs through the port, and the elevator will eventually share a rail loop with the ethanol plant. The port plans to build a 2,200-foot rail spur to the elevator using funding it received from last year’s $5.3 billion state transportation package.

“We’re excited about the opportunity to accommodate unit train offloading,” said Gary Neal, the port’s general manager. “Rail continues to be a very strong need for our region. Investing in that piece of infrastructure is very important to the viability of our industries.”

Plans to upgrade the Boardman elevator have been in the works for years, according to Gray, but it wasn’t until the co-op landed a $2.5 million grant from the Oregon Department of Transportation’s ConnectOregon program that they could finally put it all together.

Steve Biehler, the project manager for the elevator expansion, said they didn’t know exactly how large the budget would be for the additions, but that it would likely total between $15 and $20 million at completion.

“It is going to be state-of-the-art,” Gray said. “If we continue to see congestion on the rails through the Gorge, I think the adoption is going to be huge.”

Gray said he expects the facility will handle a “significant number” of trains in its first year. The economic impact will be driven by volume, which he said varies year to year based on market conditions.

Even when trains aren’t at the elevator, Gray said the offloading site can also be used by local wheat growers trucking in their harvest from the field. The high-speed equipment is rated at 60,000 bushels per hour, he said.

“This is a really big deal for a company like Morrow County,” he said.

Cameron Krebs, a Morrow County farmer and chairman of the co-op board, said the project is a major step forward in maintaining relevance for their members.

“As a co-op, our goal as the board of directors is to return profitability to our members,” Krebs said. “This is one opportunity to add another competitive component.”

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This story was corrected to show the true number of bushels of wheat and corn that will be processed by the new facility.

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