They All Fall Down

When things don’t go your way, just chill.

Published in the August 2014 Issue Published online: Aug 09, 2014 Tyrell Marchant, Editor
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WHEN I WAS 18, I got a job building grain bins. Lest you think this a glamorous line of work, let me assure you, it is not.

In the heat of the summer, with the sun beating down mercilessly on the aluminum sheets, temperatures soar to as high as 74 zillion degrees. It involves heavy lifting, sliced fingers, putrid odors and, in this case, great camaraderie.

The crew consisted of five teenagers, a college-age foreman between semesters, and our thirty-something boss, Clay. We spent the summer tearing down and putting up grain bins across southern Idaho and northern Utah, working dawn to dusk and cramming into a single hotel room at night.

For those of you unfamiliar with grain bin construction, I’ll provide a quick tutorial. Bins are constructed from the top down. Once the concrete foundation is ready, the top ring of corrugated aluminum is bolted together and the roof raised and bolted onto it. We would stake six ninefoot tripods into the ground around the perimeter and attached chain hoists to the tops of them. When the top ring and roof were ready, we’d each take a hoist and, in unison, lift the whole thing up far enough to attach the next ring. This process was repeated until the bin was built and ready to be bolted onto the foundation.

One day in late July found us at a feedlot in Hyrum, Utah. We had already torn down an old grain bin that had been used for decades to hold feed corn and had the new silo about halfway done, perhaps 25 feet high and 20 feet in diameter. This particular bin was in an awkward spot, wedged between a shed, a machine shop and another grain bin. Consequently, the chain hoists holding it up were spaced unevenly around the bin, producing a very uneven weight distribution.

Clay had gone to run some errand that morning, leaving us greenhorns to carry on in his absence, as he often did. As we began hoisting the half-built bin for its next layer, the stakes anchoring two of the hoists suddenly popped out, and the entire structure tipped over until it was resting on the machine shop.

Once we made sure everyone was (miraculously) unharmed, the task fell to our foreman, John, to call Clay and give him the damage report.

We were expecting a firestorm from the boss man. But he just told John to sit tight until he got back, and he showed up 15 minutes later with a dozen Albertson’s donuts. He looked at the wreckage, smiled, shook his head, and calmly went about telling us his plan for salvaging the operation. I’ve thought a lot about that incident in the years since, particularly Clay’s reaction.

He had thousands of dollars on the line for that project, and he very well could have flown off the handle, berated his young crew, and made the experience more miserable than it already was. Instead, he chose to step back and calmly think of a way to fix the problem before him.

We in the potato industry are often faced with unforeseen events that rain on our parade just when we think there’s sunshine coming. On May 19, Mexico opened its doors for U.S. fresh potatoes to enter the entire country. But on June 9, the Mexican Potato Producers Association sued the Mexican government, forcing a shutdown of U.S. potato imports. The suit presented a perfect opportunity for American growers and shippers to get upset with someone, anyone.

I’ve impressed with how well the industry has taken this interruption in stride. “We always knew there would be some hiccups,” NPC public relations director Mark Szymanski said at the time. “I don’t think anyone’s absolutely shocked.”

Since then, Mexico has remained closed beyond the 26-kilometer border region, and the U.S. potato industry has remained optimistic about its future in Mexico.

Throwing a fit never got anyone anywhere, except maybe kicked out of a ball game. We would do well to remember that simple lesson not only as an industry, but in our individual operations and personal lives. Stuff happens. All we have to do is deal with it.