Milk swirl
September 18, 2017

'Great Grain Train' Aids Florida Dairies

 |  By: Jim Dickrell

“The Great Grain Train,” or “The Midnight Train from Georgia,” as it’s has been dubbed by local dairy farmers, rolled into Okeechobee, Fla. last Thursday, just a day or two before the dairies there would have run out of feed.

A coordinated effort between private and public entities and CSX Railroad were able to deliver the 17 rail loads of grain, protein and commodity feed. Feed mills in the area were already some 35 carloads of feed short before Hurricane Irma slammed into Florida last week.

The feed shipments had been held up in anticipation of the storm, though shippers had stockpiled some feed in Georgia so that it could be moved relatively quickly once it was deemed safe to do so, says Clay Detlefsen, senior vice president of regulatory and environmental affairs with the National Milk Producers Federation.

Detlefsen serves on the Food and Ag Sector Coordinating Council, one of 16 councils established after 9/11 to coordinate crisis management. Last Sunday, Sept. 10, an NMPF staffer received a call from the Florida Department of Agriculture that very little grain was left in the Okeechobee area and that farmers would start running out of feed soon. That call sent Detlefsen into action, leveraging his contacts with the Council, USDA, the Federal Emergency Management Administration and others. For example, Detlefsen reached out to the chairman of the Critical Infrastructure Cross Sector Council, who Detlefsen had worked with before in crisis management and who also happened to be an American Association of Railroads staffer. 

The immediate goal was to get a week’s worth of feed to Okeechobee. Federal and state government officials along with agricultural groups also participated in the effort. “At first, I thought it would simply be a matter of giving rail priority to the feed shipments,” says Detlefsen. But there were infrastructure problems to deal with first, such as debris on track, washouts, downed powerlines and non-operating railroad crossings.

In one case, two cranes had to be brought in to lift downed powerlines off tracks so that the 17 carloads of grain could pass beneath. In other cases, dairy farmers themselves helped man railroad crossings to ensure safety as the train moved south.

“It was truly a group effort to make this happen,” adds Jim Sleper, CEO of Southeast Milk, Inc. (SMI). “We have our own feed mills, and we were able to send a few semi-loads down to Okeechobee. But it wasn’t very much--they needed trainloads, not truckloads.”

At the time, SMI was dealing with its own issues. Every dairy processing plant in the state shut down at some point during the storm and its aftermath. Some plants were down for as long as six days. “We ended up dumping milk,” say Sleper, simply because there was no place to process or store it.

Things are slowly getting back to normal, with most schools reopening this week. That means the demand for milk will again rebound, and the state will have to start importing milk again.  

“Some people claim private and government entities can’t work together,” says Detlefsen. “But in this case, everyone worked beautifully together.”

Grain train from Georgia to Florida.

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