A Pendleton flour mill fire is the latest blow to North West wheat farmers

In mid-August, a massive fire swept through a century-old flour mill in Pendleton. The Pendleton Fire Department evacuated the factory without incident, but officials say the building is a total loss. This interrupted production at the Grain Craft Pendleton flour mill, a central part of the regional economy.

The fire comes in the middle of the wheat harvest season in eastern Oregon and is the latest blow to an industry that has been plagued by drought and wildfires in recent years. But late spring this year brought wetter weather later in the year, improving growing conditions so much that it could be one of the best seasons yet.

Ben Maney, a local wheat farmer and also president of the Oregon Wheat Growers League, spoke with Crystal Ligori, host of OPB’s All Things Considered, about the impact of the fire on the community of Pendleton and the direction the wheat industry is taking.

Crystal Ligori: Can we start with a small overview of what the wheat crop has been like over the past few seasons?

Ben Maney: Going back to last year, our temperatures were extremely high and we were in extreme drought. Last year’s crops, usually the guys harvested about 50% of what they usually harvest, [which] was a big challenge for our region. We arrived at the beginning of this year and in the spring we finally had rains. So with those rains, we were able to reinvigorate our crops and farmers are seeing above average yields per acre, which is great. This has been a blessing because, as you can imagine with the pandemic of recent years, supply issues [and] input prices have gone up a bit. It was therefore welcome because it can offset the price increases we have seen.

Wheat farmer Ben Maney stands with his son at their farm in the Umatilla region. The fifth-generation wheat farmer is also president of the Oregon Wheat Growers League.

Julie Maney / Courtesy of Ben Maney

Ligor: Speaking of supply chain issues, do you know if the war in Ukraine is impacting wheat growing here in the United States?

Many: It has an effect. Ukraine produces a lot of wheat and every time you take a product offline it will pressure other regions to produce more. So there was pressure. Ukraine [also] produces fertilizers that help produce this crop and so that has been a problem. It’s amazing that we live so far apart and everything, but we all have to work together because we all have this area where we supply wheat to all over the world and you break that chain and that bond and that poses a challenge for many of guys.

Ligor: I understand that the Grain Craft Flour Mill has been in operation in Pendleton for over a century. What role did a mill like this play in the local community?

Many: It’s heartbreaking, it’s a staple of our community. And you know, you look at a lot of old photos and this flour mill was in those photos. When you think of Pendleton which was centrally located in Pendleton for a reason and for 100 years they had the fourth [and] fifth-generation farmers who still made it there. And I’ve spoken to some of the farmers who transport there and it’s heartbreaking because it’s a family atmosphere. There are little stories where farmers would get their kids on the truck that was coming to the factory and they would get popsicles or a new Grain Craft hat when they got there. But the Pendleton community has just wrapped their arms around this Grain Craft and we’re just hoping for a quick recovery there.

Smoke billows from Pendleton Flour Mills on the morning of Wednesday August 10, 2022 as firefighters struggle to control the blaze.

Smoke billows from Pendleton Flour Mills on the morning of Wednesday August 10, 2022 as firefighters struggle to control the blaze.

Kathy Aney / Eastern Oregonian

Ligor: Wheat is the state’s third largest cash crop, with most of it shipped to overseas markets. So, do farmers now have to make alternative plans? Is it easy to just move to another plant?

Many: What was nice about this mill was that the grain, when it was ground, stayed local, and then it was distributed nationally to all states. With farmers typically hauling to this plant and not being able to now, there are options to get to other grain facilities like Northwest Grain Growers, United Grain, Mid Columbia. So they have options to get that grain to market. It’s just, [going to] this grinder was one of those things they did every year for 50 years and the guys got used to it. To see it gone now it is. …I mean, it’s hard.

Ligor: What does the rest of the season look like? I know the harvest is underway, but it will continue throughout the fall, right?

Many: We had a wonderful spring with lots of late rains which was great for the harvest but one of the things with those late rains and cool May and June is that it took a long time for this crop to ripen and prepare to harvest. And so usually a lot of guys will start harvesting the first part of July, whereas this year a lot of guys were starting at the end of July. And a challenge we had with the later harvest and many of our local farms employing middle schoolers returning for the summer. Well, middle school and high school start next week or two. So a lot of farms that are just finishing up are doing a little jockey to fill in the gaps for [those] Combine drivers and tractor drivers to complete the harvest as they lost their summer helper.