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.
Once a shipload of grains arrives in a harbor, what do you do with it? In the sail freight systems of the past, and the likely sail freight systems of the future, this is an important question which needs to be answered as part of the integration of sail freight into commercial networks.
Traditionally, and throughout most of the world, grain was and is still stored in Granaries, warehouses specifically designed to have favorable conditions for keeping grain and keeping out rats and other pests. The designs are as varied as the cultures who build them, but all have the same basic objectives. While some are built at the scale of a farm or small village, others were absolutely massive, such as those used in the Cura Annonae systems of ancient Rome. At export and import hubs these massive granaries could be found, and were an important stopping and storage point for grain before it made its way to table. Throughout history these types of systems have been organized either by the state or commercial interests under the same basic technical arrangements of aggregation, movement, and distribution.
Another option is immediate distribution without storage. In this case, the sale of the cargo happens immediately, and it is taken away to the points of use such as mills, breweries, malt houses, bakeries, and homes. This Just-In-Time delivery system is not well suited to Sail Freight, as schedules when running your economy on the weather are not precise. While not a good option at an economy or city scale, this works fine for a single cargo.
These are the two basic options for doing something with your cargo of grains through history, and they haven't changed a lot in the last few hundred years. However, there are a few variations on them. In some situations, cargos of grain would sit on ships until prices rose, or until there was space in granaries to take the cargo. This especially happens with foods when they are in season, as illustrated by Hedden in his 1929 book "How Great Cities Are Fed." While Hedden referred to warehouses and railroad cars as the means of storage, with railcars being the flexible storage space, ships can and do serve the same purpose as floating granaries. When granaries are full, ships can add to the capacity, or sell directly, leaving granary stocks untouched.
In addition, ships full of grain can function as storage en route, and as mobile storage. For example, if the granaries at the point of arrival are full, a ship can be diverted to another port without incurring additional labor of loading and cross loading. With modern communications systems, ships can be diverted while still at sea, preventing congestion of both ports and granaries.
At the systems scale, storage is highly important, whether onboard a ship, in a rail car, or in a granary. It is normally better to have this storage near the point of use than near the point of production. As we saw recently in the COVID-10 Pandemic, food systems can be easily disrupted, and having food stored in reserve near the point of use is an easy way to mitigate these disruptions. It was recommended in 2015 that between 16-43 days of food be stored near US Cities for just this type of pandemic risk; clearly this warning was ignored, as we saw disruptions across the board in early 2020.
In an Energy-Scarce future, warehouses can function as a type of energy storage by letting us use energy when it is plentiful to get crops to the city, and not transport foods when energy is scarcer. What we will likely be doing with most shiploads of grains in a sail freight future is unloading them into storage, and selling them directly when the granaries are full.
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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