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The busy time of year

Gary Backes gets the last of another load of corn out of his trailer Monday at Feely Elevator.

The noise pretty much never stops these days at Feely Elevator. Gears clank, fans hum and corn kernels rattle from the beds of trucks through a grate in the floor. Complicated machinery moves corn to the appropriate bin, or to the dryer. The smell of fresh corn hangs in the air.

It's a busy time, and that's good news for area farmers.

Manager Mark Malecha said the elevator has been running 24 hours a day, seven days a week since the beginning of November. Trucks and tractors hauling trailers full of corn pull in seemingly one right after the other to get weighed and unload. Farmers are getting 175, even 200-plus bushels per acre on land that typically produces around 125 bushels an acre.

Gary Backes calls the harvest the best he's seen in at least five years. Malecha goes a bit farther. He said it's definitely the best harvest he's seen in his three years at the elevator, and possibly one of the best in the facility's 115-year history.

It's all good for business, but it can be hard on the people who have to keep everything running. Malecha has been working 100 or more hours a week since the beginning of November just to keep up with the demand.

Malecha weighs the trailers as they enter and again as they leave. He checks the moisture content of the corn, then writes out a receipt for the person who brought it in. Much of the corn will end up as feed for livestock, or sold for ethanol production. The elevator buys corn from some of the farmers who come in and stores it for others.

Richard Brand has been to the elevator several times in the past month, hauling loads of corn for his sons.

"They're getting tired of seeing me," he said Monday. "We run out of things to talk about."

That doesn't seem likely. For farmers, the elevator is part business partner, part gathering spot. They haul their loads of corn and sit in the elevator's office while they wait their turn in line. They compare notes, talk about how the growing season treated them and discuss farming philosophies.

"Farmers like to talk about farming and machinery," Brand said. "(You talk about) who's got a new tractor, and you get jealous if you don't have one."

Malecha's been in the elevator business for 20 years, and he said it's those conversations, the getting to know people, he likes best.

"They're great. People are great," Malecha said.

Like a small-town barber shop, the elevator is still someplace people can gather to talk shop or just to tell stories. It's just a whole lot dustier.

The dust is pretty much part of the deal with the elevator. When you're moving and drying as much corn as is moving through these days it's inevitable. Malecha tries to clean things every day, but the dust still gathers. It's on the countertops and on the bags of dog food and the bird feeders that line the shelves in the office.

Then there are the bees' wings. That's what the farmers call those pinkish pieces of chaff you might have noticed flitting around downtown in recent weeks. The bees' wings start out life holding corn kernels to the cob. They rub off during the combining, then end up in the trucks that haul the corn to the elevator. When the corn hits the dryer, fans blow the wings all over town. They coat the hoods of cars across the street in the city hall parking lot and pile in drifts around the elevator. They show up on sidewalks and in gutters blocks away.

The bees' wings are always part of the process, but because the corn is so plentiful this year, and because its moisture content is higher than most recent years -- meaning fewer farmers are able to dry it at their own farms -- they're showing up more downtown this year.

The harvest season is winding down these days. That's good news for Malecha, who is probably ready to be done working 15-plus hour days. And it's good for farmers who are ready to move on to the next job.

"It's getting time to get it done," Brand said. "When you're getting first of December, it's time to get it in."

The elevator should quiet down some after this week. The dust will settle. The bees' wings will stop fluttering in the breeze. And eventually the tantalizing smell of fresh corn will dissipate.

At least for now.