The voyage that most food makes to get from a field to your plate is usually long and complex.
I spend most of my time writing about the field – how I grow rice, the importance of crop rotations and cover crops, what it means to transition to organic production. I’ve also written about processing, and I can come up with a recipe for your table every once in a while.
But for this week, I’m going to write a bit about storage – a topic that is possibly the least sexy step in a supply chain.
Or so you’d think.
The Importance of Proper Storage
Proper post-harvest storage of any sort of crop is extremely important. Harvested crops can quickly lose quality, start to rot, or generally go bad if they are not properly stored after harvest.
Damage due to improper storage can cause a significant amount of waste in the supply chain.
The goal with any harvested crop is to get it in a stable environment or to have it be immediately processed.
Crops like fruits and vegetables are particularly susceptible to post-harvest damage, but grain crops also face their share of storage woes.
If not properly stored, insects, rodents, and mold can ruin the grain.
Because of these problems, storage is a phase that – like every other step in the supply chain – needs management: a person who checks up on the overall situation and keeps it under control.
As I wrote last week, rice gets harvested at a higher humidity to ensure a higher yield during processing, and thus, immediately after harvest gets dried. Once it is dried, it goes into storage.
The Drama of This Year’s Rice Harvest
The farm has relied on a local storage facility for all of our rice storage needs since, well, basically – forever.
We have not historically stored grains on the farm because we do not have the infrastructure and storage capacity to do so.
By infrastructure in this case, I don’t mean just the warehouse space – I mean everything that goes along with it: a machine to clean the grain, a way to weigh the grain, loading machines, unloading machines, and an area big enough that a tractor-trailer full of grain can move around in.
Every year, the facility, which is owned by public-private cooperative system, dries and stores our rice.
Every year, at the beginning of the year – as in February – I order seed through the coop system and they know exactly what I’ll be planting on how many hectares.
I interact regularly with the coop for a variety of reasons, and in July, a group from the coop even came out to see how the rice fields were coming along.
So, when I went to the coop in late August to discuss this year’s rice harvest logistics, I was stunned to hear that they weren’t going to be able to store my rice. The reason they gave? The wheat harvest was too big and occupied all of the storage space.
It is hard to express what a problem this was. I was three weeks away from harvest and was estimating a harvest of approximately 200 metric tons of rice, which equals approximately 430,000 pounds of rice.
Not your chump change.
Looking for a last-minute storage solution became the focus of the weeks before harvest. Had they given me one or two extra month’s notice, it would have been manageable.
The first half of September was spent on the phone calling just about everyone.
Storage facilities locally were indeed full with the wheat harvest.
Storage facilities regionally had some space but the transport costs were prohibitive.
There was at one point the option of sending un-dried rice to Northern Italy to a facility that could dry and store until December.
All’s Well that Ends Well…
Luckily, I have young farmer friends locally who have run across similar problems or are trying out newer technologies and can come up with creative solutions in moments of need.
So, when a local young farmer friend suggested the solution of “silobags,” I was all ears.
My friend used big plastic tunnels to store silage, and he knew of someone in the area who used them for grain as well.
I looked into it and promptly organized a trip to visit the company in Northern Italy. The option seemed like a possible solution, and had the added benefit of being allowed in organic grain storage.
In the end, I went with the silobags – what I call my “rice sausages.”
During harvest, my team did a great job of learning how to store the rice in the silobags, and all of our rice is now tucked away in these plastic tunnels.
The costs are somewhat higher than a normal storage facility but give me more control.
We do have to manage the bags – do maintenance, check up on them, and put up a system of fencing that keeps everything from wild boar to field mice out of the storage area.
The Challenge of Infrastructure
I’m not one to dwell on why plans changed at our normal storage facility. If you start in on the conspiracy theories, it never ends.
But the whole episode did highlight the amount of infrastructure around food production and how hard, on the one hand, it can be to change. Finding a new solution for one of the steps in my supply chain was a big undertaking, and it is very tempting to not change anything when things generally work.
But, on the other hand, change can force solutions that are more appropriate for the future.
If you come to the farm, you can check out the rice sausages!
— Ariane Lotti