Sometimes we're told you have to think “outside the box” to brainstorm better ideas. In this case, you need to think outside of the truck box.

The growth of container shipping in international trade channels may eventually change how you handle grain at the farm level. It's conceivable that grain carts, trucks and storage bins could be replaced someday with the containers that now transport goods around the world.

Sound like a foreign concept? Well, it's not. Here in the U.S., food-grade soybeans destined for Japanese tofu markets are cleaned and bagged, put on pallets and loaded into containers for overseas buyers. Wheat growers in Canada and Australia already ship some crops via containers.

Moving containers from field to factory isn't the logistical problem that it might appear, according to Scott Sigman, director of business development for the Americas division of Transamerica Leasing, Inc., the world's largest container leasing company.

“Cargo containers are nothing more than enclosed reusable packages,” he says. “They fit on a modified farm wagon or grain cart, a semi chassis, rail car, barge and, of course, cargo ships. At the farm level you can use a tractor equipped with 8' forks mounted to the three-point hitch to move containers as needed.”

Harvested grain dumped directly into leased containers could be stored in individual units for up to five years if the original moisture content is 12% or less. Sealed units do not allow moisture or insects to enter, so grain eventually leaves a container in the condition it went in.

Lee Prunty, a Rochelle, IL, implement dealer, has researched the container concept as part of a local economic development plan. “There are a lot of good synergies for the system. We just need to get some of the logistics worked out,” says Prunty, who's with Walker-Schork International.

“We've all heard the horror stories of the American grain that's unloaded in other ports. If we containerize crops, we can actually sell the quality of grain we produce,” he says. “We're looking at containers as possibly an inexpensive way to ship. It's amazing how many containers return overseas empty due to the trade imbalance.”

There are advantages to the farm bottom line as well, says Prunty. “As the cost of building storage goes up and the price of leasing containers continues to come down, it becomes cost-competitive,” he says. “When we talk with millers, they tell us they want JIT (just in time) delivery because they don't have huge elevators to store grain. With containers, we can deliver the quality and quantity of grain they want, when they want it.”

While containers come in different sizes, the most practical container for bulk grains is what the shipping industry calls a TEU, or Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit. A TEU measures 8½' tall, 8' wide, 20' long and can hold about 45,000 lbs of cargo, or roughly 750 bu of corn or soybeans.

There's no doubt that the identity-preserved market, with its price premiums and demanding standards, are the biggest market for containers today. But Sigman envisions a time when containers could become as common for commodity crops as for specialty grains.

“The next phase for agriculture is to improve efficiency enough to have growth reach another order of magnitude,” he says. “Eventually, containers could have an impact on how local elevators and grain companies do business. It could set the industry on its ear.”

For more information on containerized grain, log on to: www.ams.usda.gov/tmd/IPGrain/index.htm.