A grain and a grade: How Montana tells the quality of something smaller than your fingertip


Adam Gutzwiler sifts through a grain sample at the Montana State Grain Lab in Great Falls. He can differentiate between sprout, germ, frost, mold and insect damage just by looking at the seeds.

Photo by Jenny Gessaman

It sits in Great Falls, across the tracks from Cereal Food Processor’s mammoth white elevators. It sits, blue with white trim, looking a little like a house with an oversized parking lot.

This is the Montana State Grain Lab, and inside, its employees are determining the value of every Montanan crop.

Good prices for good grades
So how does the staff, armed with tweezers and scales, pull a price from a seed? Carefully, and indirectly, according to Montana State Grain Laboratory Bureau Chief Greg Stordahl.

He looks into a backroom. Some of his staff, sitting at long tables capped by equally long lights, are sifting through various samples piece by piece. At intervals, they will pick up a single grain for closer examination.

These elaborate inspections, coupled with a few machine-run tests, are what produce grades, Stordahl explained. Most grains can receive six grades: a one through a five, followed by the “sample” grade. Each represents how well the grain holds up to standards set by the Federal Grain Inspection Service, and each acts as a statement of quality, with one being the best and sample being the worst.

“A producer or elevator sends in a sample for analysis to grade it to FGIS standards to show the correct market value,” Stordahl said. “The elevator settles with the producers based on those grades.”

For farmers, at least, grades do matter after high school.

Grab and go
It follows that as important as these grades are, a lot of work goes into producing them. The day begins around 8 or 9 a.m., according to Stordahl, when elevators across Montana call in requests for grades.

“We schedule a run for our samples across the state,” he said.

From Havre to Hardin to Sweet Grass, the Grain Lab sends people out to pick up samples of various grains. This ensures the lab knows the sample came from the grain in question, and it gives both the grain’s buyer and seller assurance of an objective grading.

Stordahl sees his samplers return in the late afternoon, an event that can trigger a rush. Certain types of grade requests require the sample to be processed within two hours.

While equipment does some aspects of the grading, Stordahl said there were several factors that could only be evaluated by a person. He compared the craft to occupations such as welding or plumbing.

“It’s a trade, so everyone has to be trained to do it,” he said. “It doesn’t need a degree, that’s just a bonus.”

Whether you have a degree or you’re fresh out of high school, you have to earn licenses to operate almost anything in the Montana State Grain Lab, according to Stordahl. And you have to stay on top of your game: The FGIS holds grain inspectors to its high standards, and every day, the lab has 1 percent of its samples pulled at random to be re-graded at a federal facility.

“They rerun the sample we ran to make sure we’re running it to the quality they expect,” Stordahl said. “That gives our inspectors a rating based on their accuracy to the standards. Essentially, they have a report card.”

So what happens if Bobby brings home less than an A?

Stordahl said inspectors whose accuracy ratings fall below 90 percent are given federally graded samples to study until their accuracy goes back up. Yep, Bobby gets homework.

How to get a good grade
Stordahl describes the Montana State Grain Lab as an ambassador for Montana and U.S. trade: Each year, despite its simple trappings and train track neighbor, the lab hosts waves of international guests. All of them are interested in one thing: They want Stordahl to show them how the lab grades grain.

So, how does it?

That is a question for Assistant Quality Assurance Specialist Adam Gutzwiler. It is, after all, his job.

Gutzwiler clarified that he works hand-in-hand with machines: They calculate a grain’s falling number (an indicator of its quality for making bread) and protein count, things Gutzwiler cannot do.

Gutzwiler, in turn, does things machines haven’t quite mastered: He sniffs the grain and inspects individual kernels for damage. Sometimes he also quarantines a live insect or two.

Don’t worry, he said they’re usually small.

While all the tests happen in a particular order, most of Gutzwiler’s work is done when the samples sit on the black tabletop of his workstation.

Tweezers in hand, he sifts through the wheat piled in front of him grain by grain. First he looks for how much of the sample isn’t grain. Gutzwiler called this dockage, and looking at the wheat before him, generally defined it as anything that wasn’t the wheat seed.

At this point, Gutzwiler is also looking for creepy crawlies, dead or alive. He spots one, no bigger than a pin, and puts it aside. Carefully. It’s really tiny.

He explains that, as most would suspect, bugs are bad. It doesn’t take many to get a grain a sample grade.

“Sample grade means it’s no longer good for human consumption,” he explained.

Such a grade lowers prices drastically, and may even make the grain a hard sell at some elevators. A lot of “excreta” or chemically treated kernels can lead to a sample grade, too.

 Gutzwiler pulls out the dockage, and pulls out any shrunken or broken seed kernels. The percentage of these two groups is recorded, and plays a part in determining the wheat’s final grade.

Next comes the odor test. Grain inspectors smell (if I remember my chemistry right, you were supposed to “waft”) samples to check for scents that could indicate problems such as herbicides or molds.

Now comes the legendary part: the blow by blow, which, in the Montana State Grain Lab, becomes the grain by grain. Gutzwiler’s tweezers swiftly pull the sample’s pieces towards him, his eyes scanning.

He’s looking for damage (there are five different types). Then he pushes the pile back and goes through the motions again. This time he’s looking for “hard vitreous amber color.” He confidently tells me this is a good indicator of what kind of pasta the wheat could make.

Do you know why I put that term in quotes?

Because it was long, and complicated, and that man was able to determine if the wheat was amber-colored inside without cracking it open.

OK, ok, I think he maybe split  . . . two grains?

As a person not employed as a grain inspector, this might be getting a little ridiculous.

So what?
Gutzwiler estimates it can take five to 15 minutes to grade a wheat sample. Barley can take 30 minutes, or, if it’s sprouting, an hour. The rare sample of garbanzo beans, which does actually have to be hand counted, can take 45 minutes if the beans are low quality.

At least, for Gutzwiler, the typical day brings him a variety of tiny things to stare at.

“On an average day, I’m using four to five of my nine licenses,” he said.

Did I mention this trade has you earn licenses by the commodity?

This, all of it, is done eight hours a day, five days a week.

“It’s definitely different,” Gutzwiler said. “There’s not a lot of people that stare at grain for eight hours a day and keep their wits about them.”

No, there’s not. And the ones that do train a lot, and are tested randomly to keep skills sharp.

The Montana State Grain Lab doesn’t just grade samples, it also tests for molds and funguses.

Everyday, the lab hands over results that determine people’s profits or losses. They make sure, through standards and processes and by staring at things smaller than their fingertips, that they do it right.



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