Iowa grain elevator recovering from giant fire

In a Dec. 7, 2017 photo, Kurt, left, and Jim Edwards, the brothers who run the Nicholson & Edwards Grain Company, stand near their temporary office in Primghar, Iowa, a portable unit they began renting not long after a fire on Sept. 8 destroyed much of their grain business. The business made it through the 2017 harvest and now embarks on a rebuilding effort at the site. (Tim Gallagher/Sioux City Journal via AP)

PRIMGHAR, Iowa — Jim Edwards had just sat down for dinner on the evening of Sept. 8. He was in the Iowa Great Lakes area while his wife, Loretta Edwards, stayed back home at Primghar for a few hours because, as director of the Primghar ambulance, she was on-call that evening.

“My wife called and I could tell by her voice, she wasn’t joking,” Jim recalled.

The family business, Nicholson & Edwards Grain Co, was on fire.

A friend directed Jim to hop in his vehicle as they sped south. They’d only reached Milford by the time Chief Gary Lansink called Jim, who is a member of the Primghar Volunteer Fire & Rescue Department. “Gary said, ‘This is your worst nightmare: The elevator is burning,’” Jim remembered.

Minutes later, photos taken by friends began showing up on his phone.

His brother, Kurt Edwards, meantime, had joined friends and fellow employees in racing in to their office to rescue the records of their customers before the blaze took the structure. They were able to salvage documents and computer backups that would detail how much grain farmers had stored on-site, and if they’d contracted to have it sold.

Kurt then stood by, joining firefighters in protecting the neighborhood as flames enveloped the structure. Ultimately, the operation, which has been in the family since 1956, lost 200,000 bushels of storage space; the wood house, where they blended grain; a main office and an upper-level office.

“We had 22,000 bushels of soybeans in the wood house and we lost another two steel bins,” Jim said, adding that the firm was able to salvage 64,000 bushels of corn from those bins.

“We don’t have a total price loss yet,” he told the Sioux City Journal . “But, between the soybeans and the wood house, it was right around $1 million.”

The company worked quickly the following week to burn much of the rest of the debris and have it hauled away. They graded over the area and put in new rock so as to avoid customers suffering flat tires when their semis and wagons, loaded with corn and soybeans at harvest, began rolling in.

“We were two to three weeks ahead of harvest, thank goodness,” Jim recalled. “That gave us time to get all the debris and nails picked up. We then had to get a temporary office moved in by the scale, and get the scale hooked up.”

The Edwards brothers were working there a few weeks ago, recording scale readings in their temporary office before hustling outside to unload grain as another farmer pulled in. It wasn’t ideal. That’s OK, they knew it wouldn’t be.

“Most of our customers were very patient,” Jim said. “It was a long harvest. All the corn that was brought in had to be dried, which slowed things down. On some years, you can dump corn right into the storage tank and not dry it.”

This year, however, most corn had 17 to 19 percent moisture content, requiring drying. That said, much of the corn around the center of O’Brien County yielded 200 to 240 bushels per acre, save for a strip between Primghar and nearby Paullina that missed rains for nearly a three-month stretch.

“And, generally, we saw beans that were 60-plus bushels,” he said.

The elevator, which is owned by the families of Jim, Kurt and brother Tom Edwards, received offers from neighboring grain companies for equipment, personnel, etc.

“That was very nice,” Jim said. “We used one elevator, taking them some corn to make room early on. After that, we were good. We were fortunate that harvest went as slow as it did, so we could haul.”

The company, which employs eight people, ended up piling about 80,000 bushels of grain outside, a pile that matches those from the past four to five years.

“You don’t like to do that, but you have to keep dumping,” Jim said, noting gratitude for being able to keep harvest running as normal as possible in a season that wasn’t.

“Everybody here stepped up to the plate and worked as many hours as needed,” he continued. “We had lots of long days this fall.”

The season came to its unofficial close last weekend as Jim and Loretta Edwards got out of town — without interruption this time — to attend the wedding of their daughter, Traci, who married Alex Pruitt in Minneapolis. Jim laughed, noting that Traci had initially suggested a wedding on the first weekend of November. Her dad put the brakes on that idea, telling her in so many words that he and her uncle Kurt would have a difficult time getting to a Twin Cities wedding at the peak of harvest. And that was before the fire broke out.

Now that harvest has ended and the family has returned from the nuptials, the Edwards brothers work to finalize plans for a new office and storage space. And while they may reconfigure their setup, they remain committed to the elevator’s footprint on the west edge of Primghar, where a grain-handling enterprise has flourished for more than a century, the past 61 years of which have involved this family.