Tuesday, August 14, 2018


In 1920 the Conrad brothers sold their irrigation complex to Cargill which was on its way to becoming a world-wide interconnected grain manager with production and storage centers world-wide -- transportation the same.  From that moment on it was no longer a local business or even American.   WWW.cargill.com, their website, is stunning in its extent and its slick message.  Far from a small earthen dam on the Blackfeet Reservation, it has become a world-wide operation as significant as a nation.  Maybe the United Nations.  Now it is facing something even bigger:  climate change.

To tracing the earlier beginnings a bit, Cargill got its start in 1865 when William Wallace Cargill bought a grain "flat house" in Conover, Iowa.  This horizontal way of storing grain developed from piles of grain with tarp covers, which became today's fabric giant tents with steel ribs.  Doing well, W.W. brought in his brothers to help, just like the Conrads.  In 1868 Cargill expanded to Minnesota to respond to the post Civil War boom in agriculture and railroads, deeply entwined.  This phenomenon of war increasing business also helped the Conrad's sheep business since wool was the main fabric of uniforms.

The early resource extraction businesses in Montana concentrated on gold and copper and were headquartered back in Boston with investors and bankers.  But the agricultural resources were led by Mid-Westerners who lived in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.  Their temperament, interests and methods were quite different.  If they had been asked, no doubt they would have said their resources were renewable.  It's only recently that we realize that they were and are "mining" topsoil and water, also irreplaceable in the long run.  Our illusions of virtue and thriftiness are often only short-term.

Ten thousand years ago during the dawn of agriculture when irrigation was just being invented along the Nile, the retreat of the North American mega-glaciers left ground up minerals dragged down from deposits farther north, substances that contributed to fertility, all across the prairie.  Far down under the ground they left mega-aquifers of water pumped today for crops, and across the East Slope of the Rockies they formed the channels that gather today's rivers.

Cargill's strategy was to look to both sides of their grain storage business but always to locate by railroads, trying and later dropping lumber, flour, and direct farming.  Their first railroad terminal elevator was at La Crosse, Wisconsin.  This architecture of tall silos was based on a theory of handling grain, because it flows like water.  Inside were conveyor belts with attached buckets that picked up the grain on the ground, carried it up to the top, and dropped it down one of the internal silos where it could be drawn out at the bottom when needed. Occasionally a person could sink and "drown" in a body of wheat.  Inside the elevator the air could fill with the dust of the grain, which was explosive. 

Today farmers are more likely to store grain on their farms in huge shiny bins or elsewhere in a kind of neighbourhood of bins.  Valier has big tracts of them near the housing.  People have tried to convert a bin for living, with considerable success.  To avoid dust and also dampness and bugs, motors are used to blow air up through the wheat.  When the temp in Valier drops to forty below, that's a huge advantage for the war on invading bugs which can't survive.

When using motors to move grain instead of gravity, the mechanism is a long pipe, a siphon, with a big screw inside that runs quickly and powerfully.  We see their slanted casings on wheels everywhere around here.  If one of them catches the cuff of a sleeve in the low end, it will pull the wearer's whole arm inside faster than he can react.  If he's quick enough and strong enough to pull away, he may only lose a finger or hand.  This time of harvest the radio reminds farm wives to include small plastic sacks and refrigerator packs or ice in the lunch buckets, because if ripped-off parts can be recovered intact, they might possibly be re-attached.

Back in history, a young employee of Cargill named MacMillan joined with his own brothers to form an independent but similar business and one of their sons married a Cargill daughter.  Nepotistic as this may be, it meant that the operation stayed in the joint family and has remained that way, even after W.W. died at age 64 in 1909.  The previous year his son had overseen the transaction with the Conrad Brothers that meant they owned the Montana Western Railway, Swift Dam, and the Town of Valier (though not directly, but as the biggest local operation).  In short, the Pondera Canal Company.  (Pondera is an inept spelling of the French pend d'oreille or ear pendant, earring.)

By 1928 Cargill had branches in Canada, beginning the development to the world wide operation that it is now.  When WWII began, Cargill had to close its offices in Copenhagen and Rotterdam, but now the opportunity was shipping by sea.  They contracted with the US Navy to build ships.  By the end of the war the operations included Argentina and Brazil and was invested in the development of hybrid seeds.  They took on the shipping of salt up from the Louisiana origin up the Mississippi River to sell in the Midwest.  They now produced feed for livestock and poultry.

In 1956 they began to do research and in 1957 they were using an IBM 6560 computer to help with it.  The acquisition of related materials and their transport to market, possibly via processing, continues around the planet.  This helps such a sprawling operation maintain its own culture in so many different countries.  This abbreviated version of the list is on their website.  They would be honorable for a nation.

"True to the Midwestern consciousness  is a set of Guiding Principles for all employees.  
We obey the law. ...
  • We conduct our business with integrity. ...
  • We keep accurate and honest records. ...
  • We honor our business obligations. ...
  • We treat people with dignity and respect. ...
  • We protect Cargill's information, assets and interests. ...
  • We are committed to being a responsible global citizen."

Today Cargill is one of the top few food corporations in the world.  Consult their website to see how they organize their multiple interests.  They are more powerful than most companies despite -- or maybe because of -- their conservatism is matched with vision.

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