By Caitlin Switzer

REGIONAL–Since the construction of America’s first grain elevator in Buffalo, New York in 1842-43, such facilities have played an important role in small rural communities across the U.S.

The West Slope Ag Center Grain Elevator in Olathe was built in 1905. Owner Eldon Handke says that, because of the age of the facility, OSHA regulations and fines are overwhelming his business, which helps to keep prices down for local consumers.

Here in Western Colorado, however, the owners of two local grain elevators fear that a long history of providing economically priced feed, seed and fertilizer to local consumers may be coming to an end, thanks to what they consider to be excessive governmental regulation.

Bob Esplin, age 75, has been working in the industry for 45 years. Today, Esplin owns and operates the Delta Elevator with the help of one hired staffer.

“I started out at Mesa Feed in Grand Junction, but it burned down in 1974,” Esplin said, “so I came to Delta.”

Esplin said that his son, who currently works as a volunteer firefighter, plans to eventually take over the business—if there is anything left.

“Over the past 38 years I have probably bought $1,000,000 worth of local grain—but now I have OSHA challenges,” Esplin explained. “Every day, they come up with another way to charge us for what we have been doing for all these years.”

Eldon Handke of Olathe, who owns West Slope Ag Center, calls the current regulatory climate “scary.”

“I can’t sleep at night wondering who will show up the next day to fine me,” Handke said. “Our mill has been around since 1905; these old mills were grandfathered in until the Obama administration. I believe OSHA should come in if there are problems—but we have only had one accident in the 23 years I have been here, and that person came to work drunk.”

If he had it do over, Handke said that he might reconsider his early passion for owning and operating his own business.

“Nobody is getting hurt, and we are not putting out dust,” he said. “But OSHA comes in here out of the blue and starts writing fines. The ag business is good—but I can’t make money, because every time I put a foot forward the government comes in and fines me.

“I still learn something every day,” he said. “But I don’t know where things are going to go from here.”

If the two local grain elevators close, consumers will pay the per bag price for feed, he noted.

“We support our local community by keeping prices down,” Handke said. “I have 15 employees at my stores here and in Grand Junction. My place is clean and it is safe—show me where we have caused any trouble. But the inspectors go only by the book, and there is no way my old mill could pass inspection—it would cost at least $10 million to build a new mill, and there are not enough buyers on the Western Slope to support that.”

Handke said he is now more afraid of the regulatory climate in the United States than he is of flying into war-turn Mexico.

“I always wanted to be a small business owner,” he said. “But I am 45, in the middle of my earning years, and all of my profits are going to the government.

“I believe when a person is making money they should be able to pay off their debt,” he said, “But there is just no way. I can the fines, remodel, or close my doors.

“Until you own your own small business, you really have no idea how this world works,” he said.