Anyone who has spent a winter in Maine can understand how miserable a morning can be, with temperatures in the single digits and wind chills below the zero mark. But throughout the country, a cold revolution is taking hold for freight transportation as newer cold-chain supply solutions are emerging for freight shippers.
Traditionally, if you are looking to ship a perishable product across the country, your best bet is to freeze it and move it fast. Of course, the longer you can keep a perishable product frozen in transit the better — opinions about quality withstanding — because that allows the product to move greater distances or allows the shipper to use slower, more cost-effective methods to move it. The fastest method has always been direct, over-the-road trucking that can haul a reefer trailer equipped with a refrigeration system, but newer innovations in the technology and the infrastructure have opened up a steel-wheel intermodal option, capturing the flexibility of trucks and cost efficiencies of rails.
So why is the cold-chain revolution important to Maine?
Maine is well-known for its fishing industry but may be less known for its meat and dairy products as well as frozen french fries and blueberries. The cold-chain revolution could develop new markets for Maine’s agriculture and marine food industries and push to bolster new developments in ports and rails in Maine. The new connection of Eimskip in Portland is a prime example of the cold chain growing in Maine. Eimskip, an international shipping company based in Iceland with operations in Portland, moves refrigerated containers of frozen products to and from markets in the United States. How can this connection and others be exploited to grow new business in Maine?
Global trends in food production and consumption are showing that while many folks do buy local, average people around the world have more and more access to distinct food products from around the globe. Here, Mainers can enjoy new and exotic products from many far-reaching corners of the world. Similarly, people in China can enjoy a taste of Maine’s seafood industry right in their sprawling urban centers. No doubt, many markets can be developed to send Maine’s food products around the world and this country using new cold-chain solutions.
Right now, what is holding back these kinds of developments is cold storage, not just transportation. Large warehousing that can be used to process, package and load products into rail cars, trucks or containers seems to be lacking in Maine. A 2013 article in Mainebiz outlined this need, but little cold storage development has emerged. Not building up the capacity to store perishable products will limit their production and, ultimately, their market growth. The cold chain as a whole relies not just on the transportation portion of the chain but also warehousing of products waiting to move to market.
I’m a firm believer Maine government should act as a cheerleader for the state’s business needs. But I have yet to see state government make any serious attempts to capitalize on cold-chain opportunities, even though doing so most likely would be a huge boost to Maine’s large food industry. Furthermore, no efforts or plans seem to be put forth by the state to improve intermodal or rail connections in the state so shippers have more than just over-the-road trucking options. There is simply no disputing that providing transportation options to businesses in Maine will allow them to move products to new markets at lower costs.
There are always opportunities to grow business in Maine, even when all we can think about this time of year is keeping the heat on.
Next time you feel the blistering cold, briefly consider the opportunities of cold-chain solutions. While Maine’s paper future may be in doubt, perishable products can be a key strength to develop new markets for Maine’s businesses.
Charles Hastings has an MBA from the University of Maine and works in the intermodal industry in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.