One of Baltimore's two remaining grain elevators closed yesterday, further eroding what little is left of the grain business that once accounted for nearly a fifth of the port's exports.

The shutdown came as Mississippi River Grain Inc. in Canton, formerly known as Central Soya Co. Inc., was sold to ConAgra Inc., an Omaha, Neb.-based food and agriculture conglomerate.


ConAgra, which received the local operation as part of its purchase of Mississippi River's five grain elevators nationwide, is not expected to reopen the huge grain elevator here.

That would leave Baltimore with only one grain elevator, Countrymark Cooperative Inc. in Locust Point.


"The grain trade business is going away from Baltimore," said Gene Biggs, a 16-year veteran of Mississippi River who has run the plant for the past two years.

Located at Newgate and Newkirk streets, the Canton grain elevator is the local victim of the fallout from the international Ferruzzi Finanziara holding company, which owns Mississippi Grain.

Its sale stemmed from the collapse of the Ferruzzi empire last year amid charges of bribery that rocked the Italian government and ultimately forced Ferruzzi to liquidate its debt-ridden conglomerate.

As rumors spread about the impending sale of Mississippi River, Ferruzzi halted grain shipments from the Canton plant in mid-January. By April, most of the plant's 40 workers had been laid off.

"They are having a very tough row to hoe," Mr. Biggs said. "Where can a 55- or 60-year-old man go?"

At one time, the plant employed more than 200 people and was one of the largest in the Northern hemisphere.

But during the past two decades, grain elevators have shut down in Baltimore and elsewhere along the East Coast as business shifted to more cost-efficient ports along the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico.

"You still may need some grain elevators on the East Coast, but the evidence is they're vanishing," said E. A. Bubris, manager of Countrymark, owner of the port's remaining grain elevator. Three years ago, the company merged with Indiana Grain, a former division of Indiana Farm Bureau Cooperative Inc.


"How many more will bite the dust, we don't know," he said.

Indeed, with the sharp drop-off in exports to Europe and Russia, business has been tenuous for Countrymark during the past year.

"The European community didn't buy grain and the Soviets didn't have any money," Mr. Bubris said. "I have no idea what's going to happen this year."

The shutdown of Mississippi River Grain also raises questions about what will happen to the huge black structure that juts into

the Patapsco

River, its concrete silos and elevators rising more than 200 feet high.


"It's only got one use," said Mr. Biggs. "You couldn't use it for anything. And it would cost a bundle to knock it down."

In fact, some kind of grain facility has operated on the site since Civil War days. The plant was established in 1922 with parts of it dating to 1905.

Historically, grain elevators were operated by the railroads. Central Soya purchased the Canton plant from the Northern Central Railroad in 1970.

During the next 10 years, Baltimore's grain business soared as tens of thousands of rail cars brought millions of tons of grain, including corn, wheat and soybeans, from the rich, Midwest farmlands.

"You couldn't lose money in those days, the demand and prices were so high," recalled Mr. Biggs.

But business declined, beginning with the grain embargo imposed by President Carter in 1980 against the Soviet Union because of its invasion of Afghanistan. Between 1986 and 1992, grain tonnage fell by 200,000 tons, costing jobs not only at grain elevators but also in the rail industry.