OSWEGO – I don’t know why I do these things. I go to the grand opening of the Port of Oswego’s Grain Lab, schmooze, take a few photos, eat some cake, and have a generally good time. I’ve heard the lab is staffed by SUNY Oswego interns. I even see a fair number of them around the room, not that I could possibly talk to them here. They’re much too busy with their friends, and it’s far too noisy in here. Besides, there’s cake and old friends here. That may not be much of a story, but does everything really have to be a story?
The interns. They’re the key. There’s the story. Not the cake, but the interns. They’re the stars of it. What are their hopes, their dreams, their plans? I knew there had to be an answer to these deep questions, and so, I couldn’t just leave with only a story about cake. And so I called Bill Scriber, executive director of the Port.
“Bill,” I said, “could I come in sometime and interview the interns at work in the lab?”
Bill couldn’t have been nicer. “Of course,” he said. “Come in anytime. Just call ahead.”
And there it was. I’d done it again. I’d put myself right into something I know I don’t know anything about and furthermore, I’d put myself into a position I know I’m no good at: a lab. I especially never understood my college chemistry labs. I never even came close to understanding how the endless steps involved lab experiments proved anything in the end.
Yet, here I was once again, in over my head, this time with two chemistry majors. Not just a couple of young students who signed on for a couple of easy credits for pouring a handful of something into their hand and saying, ‘Yeah, this is corn,’ or ‘Yeah, this is a soybean.’ No, these two actually knew what they were doing, why they were doing it, and how to explain it all in a way I could almost understand. All I knew was if they started talking about benzene rings or any chemical with more than three syllables, I was heading for the door. Fortunately, that didn’t happen.
Tyler Ziobro and Rebecca Eisenberg are just about perfect interns. These SUNY Oswego chemistry majors are like focused scientists already.
We talked grain, mainly corn to be precise, and how you test a large truckload of it for foreign matter and toxins, according to USDA standards and the standards of one of the Port’s largest customers, The Andersons.
Undeniably, the Port has gone through quite a growth spurt lately, and their new grain storage facility and lab, attracting such customers as The Andersons, is a big part of that growth. The lab enables the Port to test and thereby control the quality of grain it supplies to The Andersons who then ship it internationally.
It’s all about the science at the lab, and the interns seemed to have mastered that quite well. Two tests make up the majority of their work when it comes to testing corn. The first, the Broken Corn and Foreign Material test (BCFM), determines the percentage of those things you don’t want in your corn. The second determines the amount of naturally-occurring toxin, mainly vomitoxin, in the corn. Too much of either of those things showing up in either of the tests and the corn’s rejected, sent back to the farmer.
The corn is sampled from a truckload of it that pulls up right outside the lab’s lake-facing windows, and by means of an outdoor, moveable probe that the interns guide from inside the lab to the depths of the truck, samples of the corn, taken from numerous depths of the load, are vacuumed into a container in the lab, divided, weighed, measured, sifted, visually inspected, and ground into powder, all resulting in numbers on a computer spreadsheet that give a percentage of BCFM and parts per million of toxin.
Tyler Ziobro explained:
“We get enough corn to fill up to about here (indicates halfway up a glass box container). This is a Boerner Divider. It analytically separates whatever’s in here into two equal portions. And then, I take one of the portions and weigh out 1,000 grams, and I give the other portion to Rebecca and she runs a toxin test, which essentially gauges roughly the percentage of a certain kind of toxin that could be present in the corn, which generally isn’t very high, but in some cases, like if they don’t take proper care of their products, then it could raise.”
At this point, I am already almost lost. The Boerner Divider? This thing looks more like a combination coffee bean roaster and overnight, very slow, cold drip coffee press, for those who like to wait about 12 hours for a cup of coffee. It’s a good three feet tall, maybe a foot wide, and very nicely made of shiny copper and possibly some brass. It is not electrical. It is completely mechanical, driven purely by gravity. Its purpose, which completely mystified me, is to divide a small container of corn kernels in two. That’s it. Divide a small bucket’s worth of corn kernels in two. A gizmo that looks more like it should be a sculpture in a museum and probably costs a pretty penny, divides something in two. I just about can’t get over this and ask for more info on it again and again. These poor interns very kindly put up with me and try to make me see the necessity and beautiful functionality of this thing. Finally I learn that it also randomizes the sample by mixing all the corn taken from all the different depths of the load before finally dividing it in two, and I accept that as at least worth something, as compared to my many unsuccessful college chemistry lab exercises which I never accepted as worth anything.
Well then, on to the testing. Tyler sifts and inspects his half of the corn carefully and up close, zooming in on individual kernels, picking out the worst of them and determining what percentage of them by weight are in the corn. Heat-damaged corn is a more common find now as the weather’s heating up, Tyler said, but generally, it makes up a low percentage of the truckload, maybe two percent. Meanwhile, Rebecca is hard at work grinding her half of the corn into a fine flour which she will test by test strip and a scanner for toxin levels. And how does she grind this corn into almost powder in this finely-assembled, high-tech lab that includes, as we have seen, the exquisite Boerner Divider to do what I kept alleging you could do with your hands in a bucket? What exotic, almost NASA-inspired piece of American ingenuity has this lab obtained for this highly-specific scientific purpose? A Bunn coffee grinder. And I’m starting to wonder if this whole lab isn’t really a disguised gourmet coffee shop hidden deep in the Port.
Tyler continues trying to explain to me what they’re doing here in the lab. He returns to justifying the existence of the Boerner Divider.
“Yeah, if you look closely you can see all these little frets,” he says of it. “They make sure that once the corn’s fallen, it’s spread as evenly as possible, so we’re getting relatively close to half and half of this. It’s never quite exact, but it’s close enough for what we need.”
“That thousand grams,” he continues, “gets re-divided, and then 500 grams is sifted out, it’s called BCFM, Broken Corn and Foreign Material, and then the other 500 grams goes to where we have the moisture content as well as what’s known as the test weight. Everything gets recorded in the computer over here. After this is sifted, we weigh out the BCFM, and that’s one of the numbers we record over here. When we report these values, there’s a certain limit that you can have. I think it’s five or seven percent that is subject to rejection. But generally, we’re not getting anything more than two or three percent.”
What if a truck comes in and it’s all nine percent bad, I ask?
“We retest it,” says Rebecca. “The manager will bring us the bag of the ones that have to be retested, and we’ll do it again. But there’s really no room for error. This is our standard procedure we follow, so all you can do is record it. Sometimes they send the truck back to the farm it came from. If they don’t accept the corn, they won’t take it.”
Tyler pointed out they’re just doing their job. “We don’t really make the decision,” he said. “We run all the numbers, and after they see us they go to the scale office so they can take a guesstimate as to how much corn is in the back of the truck and then transfer it to the silo if it gets accepted. After we run all of the numbers into the computer, other offices have access to that spreadsheet and so they can see, ‘Hey, this has a really high BCFM,’ or ‘Hey, this has a really high toxin level. So, we may not be able to accept this.’”
Have you gotten any like that, I asked?
“I did one,” Rebecca said. “I ran the toxin test and if the number’s over eight, you’d have to do a dilution test. So, I ran the dilution test and they said we were sending the truck back. We weren’t accepting it. The toxins were too high. The dilution test basically takes the same sample of corn but you’re adding more water and buffer to it so that you can get a number on the scale.”
Tyler explained the re-test further. “If it’s too high for the machine to read,” he said, “the dilution makes it so that you can get the number. And if it’s still too high, we know that there’s quite a bit of toxin in the sample.”
“You have to make the corn into a powder,” Rebecca said as she poured some into the top of the Bunn coffee grinder set to its finest grind, Turkish. “It looks like flour. And then we’ll do it again, and then you weigh out 50 grams. Then you add in the water and shake it up, and then you put it through the filter so you only get the liquid on the bottom.”
Then she tests that water/flour mixture that comes through the filter for toxins.
Tyler again explained the process a little further. “The buffer is to make sure the PH of the sample we’re preparing is at a certain level so that the test strips are able to read it properly,” he said.
“And then you take this test strip,” Rebecca said, “and put it in the little test tube, and the solution will move up so you’ll have lines on it, then you cut the pink part off and place the rest in the scanner, and it’ll give us the number, (the parts per million of toxin in the sample).”
That number of acceptable parts per million of toxin recently changed.
“Recently the scale office decided over five, we’re rejecting it,” Rebecca said.
Tyler added, “Five parts per million doesn’t really seem like a lot, but in the grand scheme of things, you’re going to have more than a million grains of corn in a truck, probably even more than a billion, and so, that’s quite a bit of toxin to be considering once you’re getting more and more of the amount.”
And so, by their expert care, the corn’s quality is assured. The interns have a manager, a SUNY employee, who guided them “for the first couple of weeks relatively consistently, every other day or so to make sure everything was running smooth,” Tyler said.
“But we are pretty self-sufficient now,” Rebecca added.
And aside from the possibility of obtaining college credit for this three-month internship, they actually get paid for their Monday through Friday, 20-hour weeks.
It’s just about the end of their day as I’m making ready to leave. There are no more trucks scheduled for testing on the sheet that’s given to them every morning. But suddenly, I ask, “Is that one of your trucks that’s pulling up?
And sure enough, it is. The interns jump into action and begin to work on the truckload of corn in front of their windows.
There is a camera on the probe by which Tyler is able to accurately probe the truckload of corn from inside the lab.
“Once you get it in view, it’s just like a video game,” he said as he expertly moved that probe in and out of the load of corn.
The corn kernels start filling into the glass container at the top of the Boerner Divider. And now it divides it all in two, quite noisily. Some then goes into screened pans. Some goes into the coffee grinder. It comes out like flour. Some heat-damaged and otherwise damaged kernels are shown to me by Tyler. Rebecca tests for toxins. Tyler tests for BCFM. They both know both tests.
The testing generally takes about 12 minutes, Rebecca said. The probing is the longest part of the process. Rebecca’s test for toxins yields a number of .7, meaning 7 parts of toxin per 10 million, a very good number.
And now the day really does come to an end. The work ebbs and flows, sometimes very busy, other times rather quiet.
Sometimes trucks are lined up waiting to be tested first thing in the morning, Rebecca says.
But they don’t seem to mind. They both seem truly interested in the work and enjoy it.
Seems like a nice internship, I say.
“It’s very nice,” said Rebecca.
“It is really nice,” Tyler said.