In the United States, there are three main transportation types for agricultural goods: trucks, trains, and barges. Airplanes are also used, but the other three options are the most common.
Trucks are utilized if there is no water access, no good railway system, or to travel shorter distances (around 500 miles or less). Trucks are the primary way to move grain from production sites. Railways are utilized where there is no good waterway system as well. Trains are the smarter option economically compared to trucks because of the efficiency of how much product you can pull with the amount of fuel used. Rail cars have a capacity of about 5,200 cubic feet or 223,000 pounds (111.5 tons). Nationally, railways account for about 33% of corn and 60% of wheat shipped. These percentages translate to 11.3% of total grain production in the United States. Lastly, barges are a low cost option that are utilized frequently, especially in the grain industry. Four of the top ten barge companies are owned by grain companies. Those companies are ADM, Conagra, Cargill, and Bunge. Barges today are used for low-value, high bulk items. A barge can hold up to 1,750 tons of cargo. Illinois is in the top 5 of barge transportation nationally.
It is interesting to look at the comparison of the amount of goods that can be transported by each of the three major means of transportation. For dry goods, the amount of goods that can fit on 1 barge would take 16 railcars or 70 trucks to transport the same amount of dry goods. The liquid good ratio is one barge can move the same amount of goods that 46 rail tanker cars or 144 truck tankers could. When looking at fuel efficiency, tow boats (for barges) use about 80 gallons of diesel per hour compared to trucks at 8 gallons per hour. Without major waterways to transport goods on, there would be an additional 58 million semi-trucks on our highways to transport goods annually. If you look at ton-miles per gallon, you will see that trucks are very inefficient by comparison to trains and barges. Inland barge towing has a fuel efficiency of 576 ton-miles per gallon (Tmpg), western railroads are at 413 Tmpg, eastern railroads at 413 Tpmg, and trucks are at 155 Tmpg.
Although trucks are the least efficient in many categories, the transportation of agricultural goods depends on trucking. According to a 2020 USDA Agricultural Product Transportation Report, trucks are responsible for 83% of the agricultural freight movements by tonnage. Truck share is especially high for meat, poultry, fish, and seafood. Even grain, which frequently is transported by rail and barge, is frequently moved by trucks. Trucks are a critical part of the agricultural transportation train because of their practicality to move from one location to the next, which is not always to a major stop.
The United States depends on the three major modes of transportation for more than just transportation of goods within our country. Our transportation system is critical for exporting and important agricultural goods to and from other countries as well. At the beginning of 2022, the USDA reported â€‹â€‹16,599 million dollars worth of ag imports into the United States. They also reported 15,877 million dollars worth of ag goods exported from our country. The U.S. has a positive trade balance, which means that we export more ag products than we import. Although each mode of transportation has its advantages and disadvantages, there is no denying that our agricultural products would not be transported as efficiently without each of the three main ways that we transport goods.