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PEI farmers may have a heavy load, but 15,000 tons of it rests on the broad shoulders of this familiar landmark.

If you weren't absolutely sure you were in Prince Edward Island, you'd bet the farm you were in rural Saskatchewan.

It's no coincidence that the PEI No. 1 grain elevator, the dominant landmark on the fringes of Kensington, resembles the traditional wooden structures associated with the Canadian Prairies: the expertise used in its construction came from Western Canada, where the presence of grain elevators is a central part of daily life.

Built of laminated two-by-six wooden framing and sheathed with Manitoba metal, the elevator is legendary: local lore has it that the structure required a full railcar of spikes to construct. It stands 103 feet high, and is believed to be the Island's tallest structure except for the Delta Prince Edward Hotel, in Charlottetown.

For 35 years, the Kensington elevator has cast its long shadow over a now-defunct rail bed and over arterial Route 2, known locally as the "old road" to Summerside. The location also has a colloquial historical name-Five Lanes End-given the roads from Charlottetown, Margate, Summerside, Malpeque and Mill Valley converge in this area, making it the obvious location for a facility of such importance to area farmers. It's in the heart of an agricultural/industrial district.

From the elevator's rooftop, you can see Malpeque Bay on the north shore and Bedeque Bay at Summerside, both sides of the narrowest shore-to-shore strip of real estate on the Island.

Elevator No. 1 is the first of three facilities operated under the control of the provincial Grain Elevator Corporation Act. Elevators No. 2 at Roseneath (built in 1977 in eastern PEI) and No. 3 at Elmsdale (built in 1978, in the area Islanders refer to as "up west") are concrete structures, which don't inspire the same type of rural sentiment as the original.

Working with 13 to 17 employees, Mike Delaney, a 30-year provincial agriculture veteran, runs all three facilities as the general manager of the Island's Grain Elevator Corporation. The agency's mandate includes stimulating feed cereal and oil-seed production on the Island, bringing uniformity to the industry and helping to establish fair pricing through a "free-market" approach (as opposed to pooling). In layman's terms, they buy and bring in grain, store it and market the bulk of it back out to the farming community for livestock. But storing doesn't just mean loading the grain in; it also involves cleaning, drying, bagging and other services, such as extruding or roasting.

Each truck laden with grain pulls onto the scale for a tally of the delivery; then the load is dumped into a bin and raised through a series of lag lifts to the upper reaches of the elevator. These lifts are driven by electric motors, perpetually greased to minimize the risk of a catastrophic dust explosion. When it's time to ship out, gravity takes over, and the grain cascades through spouts into storage tanks or trucks. During the Island's railway days, spouts were positioned directly over railcars, as is still the practice across the Prairies today.

With annual revenues of approximately $6 million, the corporation is more important to farmers than the white-collar crowd might appreciate. Delaney says that grain is the largest crop in the so-called Garden of the Gulf, not matching the value of the iconic potato but covering more acres. With storage tanks of numerous sizes, the Kensington elevator takes in varieties of barley, wheat, oats and soybeans.

Delaney and his staff oversee the absorption of about 20 per cent of the grains harvested from 120,000 to 150,000 acres that are planted on the Island each year, at about a ton an acre. The corporation's overall holding capacity approximates 30,000 tons, the Kensington facility managing nearly half that amount. Adding to its significance in the agricultural economy, grain is a crucial rotation crop, as well as being a commodity that helps fill the feed bins of Island livestock. And Islanders may end up consuming the grain themselves-the corporation sells milling wheat products to bakery suppliers in Halifax.

Without the elevator, Margate beef cattle farmer Donald Clark would be hard-pressed to keep his herd fed throughout the year. He's been a buyer of barley and other grains from the agency for more than 30 years. Clark says his average annual purchase is 1,000 tons, delivered directly to his barn door. "It's very convenient," he says, given he doesn't have the capacity to store the grain on his farm.

For locals, the PEI No. 1 blends into the landscape like a spruce hedgerow or just another barn, but for visitors, it's a monumental reminder that the rich, red soil and its products are still the central concerns of Island life.

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