Grain and medical technology may not seem to have much in common, but they share at least one trait: both are key industry clusters that help drive Minnesota’s economy. At a roundtable held by the U’s Transportation Policy and Economic Competitiveness (TPEC) Program, speakers discussed trends in grain and medical-sector supply chains and the implications for freight transportation policy and investments.
TPEC director Lee Munnich opened the event. “Transportation is necessary—but not sufficient—for economic growth,” he said. “In our research, we look at how well the transportation system is working for the economy, and in particular, for the industry clusters that are so important to an area.”
In one recent study, TPEC researchers collected data and developed new spatial analysis tools to better understand evolving grain markets and supply chains. “Ethanol in particular has rapidly transformed the corn market and supply chain,” said Travis Fried, a Humphrey School of Public Affairs graduate research assistant and Master of GIS student. “Overall, more grain is being consumed within state borders, and roads are progressively assuming a larger responsibility for connecting farmers to the marketplace.” The research is led by Munnich and TPEC researcher Tom Horan.
A panel of experts then shared their thoughts. Jon Huseby, district engineer in MnDOT’s District 8, shared highlights from TPEC-led research that gathered industry perspectives on transportation issues. In the MnDOT-funded studies, teams interviewed manufacturers and freight haulers throughout the state to hear their needs and concerns. “The discussions have been eye-opening,” he said. One example is a large dairy farm (8,000+ cows) near Litchfield that has no on-site milk storage—milk is piped directly into semi-truck tankers. During severe snow storms, milk would sometimes need to be dumped, at a significant cost. MnDOT now communicates its plow schedule to the farm to allow milk trucks to follow plows to Litchfield, Huseby said. Other panelists represented the Midwest Shippers Association, the Minnesota Regional Railroads Association, and Land O’Lakes.
In the next session, Michael Loney, senior logistics manager with Medtronic, gave an overview of medical and health care transportation issues. Minnesota is home to more than 100 medical device companies with diverse and complex supply chains. Shipments include high-value products with higher margins; some may be temperature- and time-sensitive. Air is often the primary mode, but all shipments have a ground component, making winter maintenance operations and Twin Cities congestion important considerations. “Airports need to be accessible and efficient,” he said.
One current issue is compliance with lithium battery shipping rules issued in 2016 by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Another key issue is a predicted labor shortage for pilots and truck drivers, Loney added.
A panel discussion following Loney’s presentation featured speakers from the Minnesota Freight Advisory Committee, Medical Alley Association, and Mayo Clinic.
A final panel looked at strategic directions and recommendations for further research; speakers represented Scott County, MnDOT’s Freight Office, Quetica, and Economic Development Services, Inc.
- Amber Roads of Grain, an interactive story map from TPEC that walks users through the grain supply chain study and its findings.
- “Evolving grain markets, supply chain affect transportation system,” CTS Catalyst, December 2017