Private grain companies in the U.S. wheat export system in the Pacific Northwest (PNW) overcome challenging logistics to deliver wheat that consistently meets contract specifications to buyers around the world. Grain sellers based in Gulf, Lakes and Atlantic ports operate very similar logistical systems to export wheat and other grains.

We are sharing a video and written look at how these successful companies do their work serving U.S. wheat farmers and overseas wheat buyers.

Sourcing Wheat From the Interior

An overseas buyer contracts with an exporter for wheat of specific class, grade, quality and price. It is then up to the exporter to source that wheat and get it loaded at the contracted price.

They do this reliably through a very efficient, system that moves the wheat to market using trucks, barges and rail to the vessel, often within a two-week shipping window.

U.S. wheat export system starts at country elevators.

U.S. wheat export system starts at interior elevators where wheat purchased from farmers is loaded onto train cars for delivery to export elevators.

In the U.S. wheat export system, grain sellers source U.S. wheat supplies from local elevators close to the farms.

Hard red spring (HRS) wheat comes mainly from the Dakotas and Montana. Hard red winter (HRW) wheat originates mostly in Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska and some from PNW states.

Those classes are loaded onto dedicated 110 car unit trains that haul the wheat over the Rocky Mountains and down the Columbia River Gorge to the export elevators.

Farmers deliver much of the soft white (SW) and white club wheat grown in Washington, Oregon and Idaho to grain facilities on the Snake, Columbia or Willamette Rivers where it is loaded onto barges or trains for the ports.

In the U.S. wheat export system, barge transportation is efficient and safe.

In the U.S. wheat export system, barges are the most cost-efficient transportation method. In the Pacific Northwest, wheat can move by barge to export elevators from as far away as Idaho because of the series of locks and dams that make safe, efficient navigation possible on the Columbia-Snake River System.

Because U.S. wheat is graded and segregated by class and quality at every step of the supply system, the export elevator knows they will receive the wheat they need to fill their customer’s contract.

Highly Automated Process

The receiving process at elevators in the U.S. wheat export system is highly automated. Numerous sensors and cameras allow only a few people to unload the wheat very quickly into temporary holding bins segregated by class, grade and quality.

Barges in this tributary can discharge 600 metric tons of wheat per hour. Unit train cars are opened and unloaded in less than 18 hours.

The export elevator’s shipping system is also automated. One person from a control room can select wheat from different storage bins and blend them together to be loaded onto the bulk vessel the buyer has chartered.

But, under U.S. law, that cannot happen until the wheat is inspected to certify that the quality loaded matches the customer’s specifications.

This highly regulated, standardized process is conducted by the USDA’s Federal Grain Inspection Service, or a state inspection agency supervised by and subject to the same standards as FGIS.

FGIS inspection and certification is required by law in the U.S. wheat export system.

FGIS inspection makes  the U.S. wheat export system uniquely valuable. A random sample of every sub lot of wheat is broken down into specified quantities by FGIS officials and weighing, inspection and certification is standardized and objective. FGIS inspection data also yields information that buyers can use to get the most value from their tenders. 

In this process, a specific amount of wheat is sampled every 15 to 20 seconds as it flows from the elevator into designated shipping bins holding from 1,000 to 2,000 metric tons.

The sample is collected in the FGIS lab at the elevator and the shipping bins remain closed while FGIS inspects each sample.

When the inspectors certify that the sample meets the customer’s contract specifications, FGIS opens the shipping bins, allowing the elevator to load that wheat onto the vessel. If not, the wheat in the shipping bin is returned to the elevator to be re-blended.

Quality Assurance

FGIS saves sub-lot samples from each shipping bin for 90 days in case an issue comes up when the wheat arrives at its destination.

To give the buyer additional quality assurance, about 10 percent of all samples are sent to a national FGIS Board of Appeals and Review to be re-inspected for quality control monitoring.

Those inspections generate valuable data that customers can use to get even more value from their purchases of high-quality U.S. wheat. Your U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) representative can help you make good use of this information as you write your tenders.

In the U.S. wheat export system, grain companies move wheat from inland farms and elevators to deep water ports more efficiently and economically than any wheat supply system in the world.

In the U.S. wheat export system, grain companies move wheat from inland farms and elevators to deep water ports more efficiently and economically than any wheat supply system in the world.

It is very reassuring to wheat importers that U.S. grain handlers segregate wheat by class and quality, and maintain its wholesome character, while moving wheat from inland farms and elevators to deep water ports more efficiently and economically than any wheat supply system in the world.

Learn More

More information about the U.S. wheat export supply system is available from USW online or from your local representative, including an interactive map of the system, a section on “How to Buy U.S. Wheat” and other resources.




Grain companies serving Pacific Northwest (PNW), Gulf, Lakes and Atlantic ports overcome challenging logistics to efficiently deliver wheat that consistently meets contract specifications to buyers around the world. Rail rates, for example, make up a significant percentage of U.S. wheat export basis and, ultimately, the FOB price paid by importers.

Exporting grain companies draw from inland country elevators that play a vital role in the U.S. wheat export system. And, according to the National Grain and Feed Association (NGFA), which represents and provides services for country elevators and other related commercial businesses, having access to efficient, competitive rail transportation is crucial. In fact, NGFA notes that 72% of U.S. wheat moves to domestic and export markets by rail.

Base and Secondary Rail Markets

Dr. Frayne Olson, Crop Economist/Marketing Specialist with the North Dakota State University Extension, says the United States has a very strong network of reliable freight rail systems that move wheat and other grains from where it is produced to domestic and export locations. He suggests that most deliveries to export elevators in the Pacific Northwest (PNW) or the Western Gulf rely on 110-car shuttle trains dedicated to wheat or other grain deliveries. The total cost of shuttle train delivery includes a base tariff rate and, if needed, a secondary market.

Shuttle loading system to present rail rates background

A shuttle train is loaded with grain at an inland elevator in this image from a video lecture by Dr. Frayne Olson, North Dakota State University, produced for USW. Arrows indicate the rail engines and covered grain cars.

“The base rate does not change rapidly,” Dr. Olson said in a recently produced video lecture on grain transportation for U.S. Wheat Associates (USW). “With shuttle systems, the base rate reflects the use or leasing of a train for about a 12-month period by the exporting company.”

U.S. railroads are also allowed to apply a fuel surcharge per car.

The secondary market allows exporters to contract for unanticipated rail requirements by purchasing unused space in a rail car and move the grain to the export terminal. Because the secondary rail market correlates directly with the principles of supply and demand, it can be considerably more volatile than the base rate tariff.

The Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) of USDA notes that secondary rates are most often a small fraction of the full cost or rail shipments relative to the base tariff rate.

Total rail rates make up a significant percentage of U.S. wheat export basis. Each week, USW Market Analyst Michael Anderson polls export grain traders about changes in export basis. In their reports, the traders consider factors that directly affect basis including rail capacity’s effect on rates. Nearby futures prices and average basis are included in the USW Price Report to provide an estimate of weekly FOB prices for several classes and protein levels from PNW, Western Gulf and Lakes ports.

Current Rail Rates

Overall, current rail rates for shipping U.S. wheat are about equal to or slightly less than they were one year ago. In its July 15, 2021, “Grain Transportation Report,” AMS reported the following base rail tariffs, plus a fuel surcharge, per metric ton (MT) for shuttle trains:

Great Falls, Mont., to PNW Ports:                  $39.90

Wichita, Kan., to Western Gulf Ports:            $42.07

Grand Forks, N.D., to PNW:                            $56.37

Grand Forks to Western Gulf:                         $59.54

Colby, Kan., to PNW:                                        $63.35

NGFA points out that agricultural producers and shippers now are dependent upon only four U.S. Class 1 carriers to haul most grains and oilseeds by rail. Those four railroads typically originate more than 80 percent of such traffic, compared to only 53 percent in 1980.

USW map of Class 1 U.S. railroads to help demonstrate rail rates.

U.S. Class 1 railroad routes are shown in this image from USW’s interactive map of the U.S. Wheat Export Supply System.

Monitoring Rail Rates and Policies

Like NGFA, the U.S. wheat industry is closely watching the current proposal for control of Kansas City Southern Railroad by Canadian National Railway and a potential competitive offer by Canadian Pacific Railways. USW’s Wheat Transportation Working Group will weigh in on these proposals to the U.S. Surface Transportation Board (STB) with public comments.

In addition, USW has joined several other organizations, including NGFA, urging the STB to adjust rail regulations to ensure sufficient competition and, ultimately, the most efficiency and value for farmers, the grain trade and overseas wheat buyers. Anderson will report on that effort in the next Wheat Letter post July 22, 2021.


A coalition of Pacific Northwest (PNW) agricultural and commercial organizations recently responded with serious concerns to a controversial dam breaching proposal that would tear out four dams on the Snake River.

The dam breaching proposal, presented by U.S. Representative Mike Simpson of Idaho, aims to restore fish populations on the river while compensating groups affected by removing the dams. However, in a letter to government officials, the coalition said the plan would decimate U.S. producers’ ability to move wheat and other products to overseas customers and be of questionable environmental benefit.

The National Association of Wheat Growers joined state wheat organizations in Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Montana in signing the letter.

No Dams, No Barges

U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) has shared stories about the sustainability and reliability of wheat transportation by barge. The Columbia and Snake Rivers are essential parts of a logistical system that moves more than half of all U.S. wheat exports every year to more than 20 Pacific Rim countries. Wheat loaded on the Snake River makes up 10% of all U.S. wheat exports.

Barge traffic on the Columbia-Snake River System is the most cost-efficient and sustainable connection between U.S. wheat farmers and their customers overseas. And more easily navigable, safe and efficient barge transportation depends on river locks at each of the targeted dams.

Uncertain Results

USW shares the opinion stated in the coalition letter that improving fish populations are important and admirable goals. Still, there is little certainty removing the dams will restore fish populations to a level that would satisfy environmental advocacy groups involved in litigation over the river’s management.

The river system’s current management strikes a balance between all river uses—providing renewable electricity, transportation, irrigation flood control, and recreation. The dam breaching proposal would eliminate nearly all these benefits of the river. It would also subject interior PNW communities to a wide range of environmental and economic impacts.

Barge Traffic Safe for Now

Fortunately, U.S. wheat importers should not worry that the dams are in imminent danger. Members of Congress have not yet written legislation on the dam breaching proposal and it has not attracted much political support.

Hopefully, the proactive and vocal nature of river stakeholders early in this process will highlight the shortcomings of the proposal’s fish recovery portion and the enormous costs for trade, the region and the U.S. Treasury.

By Dalton Henry, USW Vice President of Policy


U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) is excited that so many people around the world have seen the new film titled “Wholesome: The Journey of U.S. Wheat,” which had its premiere on Jan. 12, 2021, on the USW Facebook page. The film is also available for viewing online on Vimeo at

USW produced the 23-minute film in cooperation with the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service and Federal Grain Inspection Service, state wheat commissions, local elevators and export elevators. It is now available to USW’s 13 overseas offices and is the foundation of USW’s messages to world wheat buyers and users about U.S. wheat export quality throughout 2021.

“The people at every step of U.S. wheat’s journey to export featured in the film tell their own stories about how they thoughtfully produce new varieties, care for the land and the crop, and handle the wheat responsively to ensure it meets customer needs,” said USW Vice President of Communications Steve Mercer. “Functional quality is a crucial part of the reliable U.S. wheat supply and the people play such an important role in maintaining quality, so we wanted them to help remind our customers about why U.S. wheat is so valuable.”

USW has also produced individual short subject programs covering chapters featured in the film. Each of these programs will be available for viewing on the USW website.


By Matthew Weaver. Reprinted from Capital Press with permission.

Editor’s Note: The image at the top of this story shows the Columbia-Snake River System with wheat export loading facilities on the rivers. Blue color indicates areas of soft white wheat production, Gold color indicates hard red spring production area, and Green color indicates hard red winter production area. View this interactive U.S. Wheat Export Supply System map produced by U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) here.

U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson says his plan to end all salmon litigation and remove four Snake River dams would offer agriculture unprecedented legal protection, but industry stakeholders say it’s a nonstarter.

Simpson, R-Idaho, has not proposed legislation, but on Feb. 7 released a $33.5 billion concept for salmon recovery, which includes removing the Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor dams on the lower Snake River in 2030 and 2031.

“It’s such a different approach,” said a Simpson representative, speaking on background. “We’re not saying, ‘Take the dams out and save salmon.’ We’re saying, ‘Save agriculture, replace everything and then save salmon.’” If the dams are removed, each interest group would need sufficient resources to replace the benefits they currently receive, the representative said.

Replacement power generation would have to be built and online by 2030, prior to breaching the dams.

The concept includes an automatic 35-year extension of licensing for all remaining public and private dams generating more than 5 megawatts in the Columbia River Basin. This would “lock in” the dams and eliminate the “slippery slope” argument of, “If you allow them to remove these four dams they will go after the other main-stem Columbia River dams and others,” the representative said. Under the concept, if the dams are removed, any litigation related to anadromous fish within the Columbia River system under the Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act or the Clean Water Act would be immediately halted and stayed for 35 years.

The plan combines many different elements that are not necessarily related, including fish recovery, energy generation and electricity rates, said Kristin Meira, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association.

Each element requires its own intense inquiry and study, she said.

“Unfortunately, the idea of Snake River dam breaching is a non-starter when it comes for how we move cargo and ultimately for our energy portfolio,” she said. Taking out the dams would make that stretch of the Snake River impassable for barge traffic.

Ice Harbor Dam and navigation lock near Burbank, Wash., on the Lower Snake River

The Ice Harbor Dam and navigation lock near Burbank, Wash., on the Lower Snake River provides navigation, hydroelectric generation, and incidental irrigation. iStock photo.

Stakeholders also say breaching the dams won’t achieve salmon recovery, pointing to fish declines along the West Coast due to ocean temperatures, runoff and other factors.

Four of 13 endangered salmon populations listed traverse the Snake River dams, said Glen Squires, CEO of the Washington Grain Commission.

“Everybody knows salmon are not doing well regardless of the rivers that have dams, don’t have dams,” Squires said.

Removal of the dams and the navigation system would affect reliability and timeliness of wheat delivery to customers overseas, Squires said.

“When we visit with overseas buyers, very seldom, if ever, do they ask about what’s going on with the barge system,” he said. “What they ask about is, what’s going on with the rail system?”

Transportation costs to get wheat to West Coast ports would increase by 50% to 100%, said Michelle Hennings, Washington Association of Wheat Growers executive director.

Barging is the most carbon-friendly mode of transportation, Hennings said. Switching to trucks and trains would likely increase carbon dioxide and other harmful emissions by over 1.25 million tons per year.

“This is not a plan that gets us on a greener path when it comes to cargo movement,” Meira said.

Read additional information about this issue at the following links:

IGPA Press Release


By Matthew Weaver. Reprinted with permission from Capital Press,, Dec. 2, 2019

[Editor’s Note: The locks and dams on the Columbia-Snake River System are an essential infrastructure for the efficient transportation of U.S. wheat from the interior to vital export elevators serving buyers in Asia and Latin America. This article examines the effort to tell the complete story of how the river system serves a broad range of people and interests. On behalf of the farmers we represent and their export customers, U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) strongly supports keeping the system, in its present form, whole.]

Northwest agricultural transportation advocates are backing a new advertising campaign to combat environmentalists’ “simplistic messages” about removing four dams on the Snake River.

“Snake River Faces,” sponsored by the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, tells the story of several people who have personal connections to the river, including a wheat farmer, a family winery and a port director who welcomes commercial tour boats and kayaks on the river in her free time.

Environmental groups have for years called for the removal of the Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams, citing their impacts on federally protected salmon and, more recently, orcas.

“There’s a lot of misinformation and lack of understanding about the river and all of the different, amazing things it delivers to our region and to the nation,” said Kristin Meira, executive director of the association.

Ads are running in magazines throughout Washington state and on Facebook.

Meira said the campaign will run through early January.

The abundance of misinformation is “really unfortunate,” she said.

“It ends up doing a disservice to the very species we’re all interested in helping, whether it’s salmon or orca,” she said. “The idea you can do one action in one area and have those species recover is unfortunately just not how it works. But unfortunately, those very simplistic messages are being delivered all around the region, including to our decision makers.”

The association relies on information from federal agencies, particularly NOAA Fisheries, on species recovery and to highlight the impact of the dams.

Meira said a colleague put out a call for information about the number of jobs the dams provide over the summer.

d Pacific Northwest wheat farmers like Marci Green of Fairfield, Wash., rely on the Columbia-Snake River System and its locks and dams to efficiently move wheat to export elevators.

Fairfield, Wash., wheat farmer Marci Green is featured in the campaign.

“Just like every farmer in Eastern Washington, most of our wheat is exported,” Green said. “The most fuel-efficient and cost-effective way for us to get our crops to the ports in Portland and Vancouver is by truck and barge on the Snake and Columbia River.”

Barges using locks at the Snake River dams move nearly 10 percent of all U.S. wheat exports to international markets most years.

“Anything we can do as the agricultural industry to get the word out and communicate why the river system is important to our industry and to the economy of the whole state and the Pacific Northwest, we need to do,” Green said.

The association also asks residents to provide comments to an online questionnaire offered by consultants hired by the office of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to gather and summarize the effects of retaining or removing the four dams. Responses will go into a report to Inslee.

Meira said it’s too early to tell whether efforts to combat the misinformation are making a dent.

“We’re hopeful these will be eye-opening pieces that will help better connect people to parts of the region where they may have heard a little bit, but don’t really understand (or) don’t know the connection that all of us have,” she said.

Green hopes to get the public to consider science and not respond solely to emotion. She isn’t sure how to measure the effectiveness of agriculture’s messaging.

“I have to hope that we’re making some kind of an impact,” she said. “It’s one of those things that always comes up, it’s one of those issues that we are constantly up against. I don’t see the issue going away any time soon. It’s going to take a lot of perseverance and telling our side of the story over and over and over again.”

For more information, visit: “Faces of the Snake River” at; and “Riding with the Wheat on Its Way to Export” at


Early in 2019, I attended a presentation given by the Executive Director of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association (PNWA), Kristin Meira. In the audience were farmers eager to hear how U.S. legislators shared their interests regarding the ongoing navigability of the Columbia Snake River System. Open waterways are a crucial and efficient source for U.S. farmers to export their products to international markets.

The Columbia Snake River System is the leading gateway for wheat exports. The Columbia Rive alone barges 53% of U.S. wheat destined for export. The rivers can move more volume at once, with greater fuel efficiency, making them more effective for moving grain to market than by rail or truck. One barge can carry the same amount as 35 rail cars or 134 18-wheelers. A barge tow can carry more than one 100-unit train or 538 trucks. One barge can move a ton of wheat 647 miles per gallon while a truck can only move a ton of wheat 145 miles per gallon

A Voice for the River System

The PNWA is an active voice in promoting the benefits of keeping the river systems open for navigation. In their own words, the PNWA is a collaboration of ports, businesses, public agencies and individuals who combine their economic and political strength in support of navigation, energy, trade and economic development throughout the Pacific Northwest (PNW). The organization’s history dates back to the projects of the New Deal in 1934. The group, known then as the Inland Empire Waterways Association, petitioned President Roosevelt to fund a navigation lock along the Columbia River just east of Portland, Ore.

Since then, the PNWA has been a leader in securing Congressional authorization for the necessary funds to build another seven locks and dams along both the Snake and Columbia River. The PNWA also works hard to maintain and improve navigability. They advocate for deepening the draft and improving the jetties that allow safe passage into the Columbia River.

Conflicting Interests

The importance of the river system is not lost on the farming community. However, balancing the interests of environmental groups is difficult. Save Our Wild Salmon, an organization with the goal of increasing PNW wild salmon and steelhead populations, advocates for the removal of dams on the Snake River and expanded spillways on the remaining dams. They also want to modernize the Columbia River Treaty with Canada. These changes would include the river’s health as an equal portion of the treaty, which currently only governs energy production and flood management.

Many groups do not place value on the beneficial role that the dams have regarding grain transportation and clean renewable energy. The four dams on the Snake River power up to 800,000 homes while producing zero carbon emissions. Instead, environmental groups focus their argument on enhancing the railroad as a replacement for barge grain transportation. This tactic would take billions of dollars in infrastructure upgrades and would not be as efficient or as environmentally friendly

A Necessary Link

The value of the Columbia Snake River System as a transport hub from farm to market is the link necessary to connect the United States to its trading partners. The river system keeps U.S. wheat competitive by moving higher volumes at more efficient prices. The wheat associations that make up the tri-state region of Idaho, Oregon and Washington all support, through their PNWA membership and resolutions,  the ongoing navigability of the rivers system. There will continue to be controversy surrounding the river system and the rich ecosystem that they sustain. The shared interest between farmers, sportsmen, environmentalists, scientists and commerce are diverse. An organization like PNWA, which has spent more than 80 years advocating for an open river system, is the key to keeping it open for decades to come.

By Michael Anderson, U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) Assistant Director, West Coast Office