In May of 2022, the Hudson River Maritime Museum will be running a Grain Race in cooperation with the Schooner Apollonia, The Northeast Grainshed Alliance, and the Center for Post Carbon Logistics. Anyone interested in the race can find out more here.
If you've been following the Northeast Grain Race thus far, you've likely noticed that the cargos are arranged mostly on an Ad Hoc basis, with everyone trying to find farmers, bakers, brewers, shippers, and other interested parties in their area to make their entries happen. While this is amusing and interesting in the context of this competition, it really isn't how a logistics system is normally run, and it certainly isn't efficient.
Historically on the Canals and Waterways of the world, this cargo-coordination role was undertaken by Freight Offices, who knew their local area, kept track of transportation routes and schedules, and would serve as a broker for cargos. If you needed to ship 5 tons of grain from Kingston to New York, for example, you could simply call on the Freight Office and let them know. The freight broker would know who was plying that route at the time you needed the shipment made, who would be likely to have the space to handle the cargo, and would then arrange the shipping for you. And, of course, for a fee.
Some also ran warehouses, which served as storage and staging space when cargo had to change from one mode of transport to another. Some specialized in certain types of cargo or routes, as well.
For the revival of Sail Freight, the return of Freight Offices will be important. As shipping brokers, freight offices save both carriers and shippers a large amount of work by making the connections between the two. Idle time for ships can be reduced, while the time to search out a ship to take a cargo is also cut down for those looking to move a cargo. While there isn't an absolute need for a freight office, since eventually relationships will be built between carriers and shippers, the use of freight offices for some cargo will make shipping easier for those who ship items less often, and for small cargos which do not need an entire vessel to handle them.
A good example of the latter is trying to ship a case of Maple Syrup from Burlington Vermont to New York City from the shipper's perspective: Hiring an entire ship is a waste of capacity and very expensive. Finding a ship headed for New York City with that space by simply calling every ship in port or walking the docks involves a large investment in time figuring out each vessel's route and open capacity. Calling a broker who knows who is headed to New York soon and has spare capacity to fill will save everyone time.
From the Ship Captain's perspective, the deal is equally easy. Instead of hunting the docks for people with small cargoes, the captain can tell the Freight Office how much capacity they still have to fill, as well as when and where they plan to go next. Ships make the most for their crews and captains when they are full of cargo, so filling unused space is critical to keeping the ship financially viable. If they have a regular cargo which isn't their full capacity, using a broker helps the ship earn more money. If the ship doesn't have a regular cargo, the Broker can find them for less than the idle time on the docks would cost the ship.
Establishing a Sustainable Freight Office in the Northeast wouldn't be a bad idea for those who like coordinating things. While the capacity and demand might not quite have reached the point where a freight office is likely to be self-supporting, it is likely to happen in the next few years. Hopefully the Grain Race will be an event which increases demand, capacity, and interest in sustainable food transportation and brings the job of a freight office closer to viability. Until then, we get to watch what just creative problem solving and informal links can do in the realm of food movement.
You can find more information on the Grain Race here.
Steven Woods is the Solaris and Education coordinator at HRMM. He earned his Master's degree in Resilient and Sustainable Communities at Prescott College, and wrote his thesis on the revival of Sail Freight for supplying the New York Metro Area's food needs. Steven has worked in Museums for over 20 years.
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