On- and off-farm storage capacity jumped 20 percent in the decade to Dec. 1, 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with some of the biggest gains of more 30 percent in North and South Dakota, as farmers switched to corn, which yields about twice as many bushels per acre than the area's traditional wheat crop.
Now, in the Dakotas and elsewhere in the northern U.S. Plains, where winter's rail problems had already stranded a large share of last year's crop, bagging equipment suppliers are scrambling to keep up with demand.
"There are people that would have never bagged three years ago that are now almost forced to consider it because the elevators just can't take any grain with the railroad not getting their job done," said Craig Fisher, a farmer in Richardton, North Dakota and owner of Antelope Farm Supplies, which sells bags and bagging equipment.
His sales of bagging machines have exploded in just the past week after a patchy start to the season due to adverse weather which had kept production prospects clouded.
"Everything I've got is spoken for now and I've had to reorder. We had some come in today and those are already sold."
Fisher is now expecting a 25 percent jump in bagging equipment sales this year, after a similar jump in 2013, based on inquiries from customers. He has also sold two semi-truck loads of the plastic bags this summer and is awaiting a third 96-bag truck in about a week.
LOCK IT AWAY, THROW AWAY THE KEY
Bagging keeps grain in better condition and for longer than the standard U.S. practice of piling surplus on the ground and covering it with tarps. The white outside reflects the sun's heat while the inner layer is black, acting as a barrier to sunlight and helping maintain a lower than ambient temperature inside.
The cost of storage in a single-use bag is around 5 to 7 cents per bushel, plus charges for loading and unloading equipment, which together can come to anywhere between $60,000 and $160,000.
GrainLogix, the system made by Loftness, can stuff 30,000 bushels an hour -- nearly filling a whole bag of the kind made by companies like Up North Plastics which can store up to 34,000 bushels of grain.
By comparison, permanent storage costs $1.50 to $2.00 per bushel to build, or several hundreds of thousands of dollars, with waiting lists for installation often months long.
With the harvest slated to begin in a matter of weeks, the white sausages could lead farmers into a post-harvest stand-off with the grains merchants and push food costs higher.
John Brink, who grows corn on about 1,000 acres (400 hectares) near Centralia, Ill., said he expected to store most of his crop until prices rise and thought other farmers would do the same.
"We'll lock it away," he said. "We'll slam the door shut and throw away the key for a while."