Grain is exported in the thousands of tonnes–not exactly a quantity you’d like to toss in a stamped envelope. Typically, grain travels the world on open water–on the Great Lakes to the United States, and on the Oceans to the rest of the world. Large boats haul grain and other agricultural cargo such as fertilizer. These boats can hold massive amounts of freight, approximately 29,000 metric tonnes in a typical lake-going vessel (even bigger freighters are used for trips across the Ocean). Compare that to trucks that may only be able to haul 25-40 metric tonnes of grain at a time. These ships take approximately 30 hours to load in port–even longer for bigger ships. There are some newer, self-unloading ships that can manage the whole process in under 5 hours.
The old adage “time is money” certainly applies to these ships; they’re not cheap to operate. Shipping costs start at $19 per metric tonne to move grain from Sarnia, Ontario to Montreal, Quebec. If a ship has to sit at port longer than was first anticipated, the hourly cost is about $1900 past the allocated time to load or unload. These fees can add up extremely fast, especially if there is a mechanical failure and it takes a long period to get equipment back up and running. Strict time frames can also become important close to the winter–once the water begins to freeze, certain waterways will be closed and not due to open until April 1.