Rural vs Urban Supply Chains Issues

David Trammel's picture

Someone posted this article on a prepping group I'm on:

"Life in Rural America: No Milk or Eggs - Is it weird nobody’s talking about food shortages?"

I live in a big city (St Louis) and haven't seen the kinds of shortages that others are describing. I've wondered what kind of issues am I not seeing.

Robert Frost, who manages a very large distribution center for a major retailer, and whose comments I've posted before, had a good observation on supply chain pressures right now.

"My take as a Supply Chain Guy--So if supply is constrained (it is- chickens and cows were killed off last year when demand sunk and haven't regained) and drivers/running trucks are scarce (they are) you will see the most expensive parts of the supply chain dry up first. If a truck/driver can make 20 stops in an urban/suburban area or 5-10 in a rural area-- where do you put your truck? Or if you only have 75% of the stock you need to make your route, but the expense ratio of the ends is *much* higher (less product moved per stop, on less dense stops) then where you allocate the product is not hard to determine. Capitalism is ruthless. As some commenters above have said, the scarcity will breed innovation or new suppliers, but over time and likely at cost. Ironically, the suppliers focusing on shorter, denser routes are likely seeing HIGHER profits than before, whereas 2 years ago they had to drive everywhere to get any sales (high supply) or risk being scaled out by a competitor, now they can focus on high return routes, and likely use the higher profits to buyout a competitor.

Ups / FedEx keep bumping their rates for their extended delivery areas for another example. Even delivering to populated islands in a unpopulated sea like Souix Falls or Bozeman is problematic due to being 400 miles (800 round trip) from large regional distribution centers that service 80-120 stores.

For example- All of Souix Falls has only 2 Targets, Brooklyn alone has 8... in a qtr the area and netting 10x the sales. Shit, ALL of So Dak only has 5 Targets...

As Sharon Astyk and others have said, there are many reasons that, historically, as crises hit, population centers tend to fair better. To me, It's somewhat easier to be self reliant in a more rural area, but only to a point and self sufficiency especially in a modern Era at modern levels, is not going to happen and that self Reliance will get, IS GETTING, tested much sooner if you are Real Rural than if you aren't."


Greer has written at length that an Empire in decline begins to abandon the hinterlands, concentrating resources to the center. Is this what that action looks like or is this just a byproduct of our current pandemic related supply and manpower issues?

Ken's picture

Very interesting to get a glimpse inside the trucking industry details. Capitalism is indeed ruthless...

Living on an island accessible only by sea or air, we have dealt with supply chain bottlenecks for - well, always. But the latest iteration is due to the weather. We're just thawing out after a solid week of below freezing temperatures, frozen pipes and 6" of snow. Normal winter week in Buffalo, NY, but a paralyzing event for the maritime PNW.

It's more than a little bit pathetic but here we are... haven't been able to get out the driveway, nor wanted to drive on the roads unnecessarily, especially with so many incompetent drivers around. ("I have a giant 4x4 truck! I can go anywhere at any time and magically stop 6000 lbs of Detroit iron on a sheet of ice!")

This morning I had my tea (weaned myself off coffee a while ago - still love it but it doesn't love me!) with no cream... usually that gives me a bellyache, so I brewed my thermos for less time and added honey. And - no bellyache! So clearly it IS possible to live without cream! Just as it is possible to live without a great many things that I (we) have become accustomed to. Running water for example: the day after Christmas my pipes froze at 10 F w/ 40 knots of wind and couldn't get them thawed out for a week. It turns out that two of us can get by quite comfortably with 5 gallons of water per day for everything but flushing the toilet. That took another 10 gallons, but was totally for the sake of convenience; we use a composting bucket system on the boat and another at the yurt, so we could have easily done that.

But... now we're out of cream, eggs, bagels, and bacon; none of which is absolutely necessary, of course. We keep loads of staples in the pantry that we cycle through to keep the stock reasonably fresh, so we have plenty to eat; we're just low on the goodies that make the basics more palatable.

I feel like there is a lesson in this... Maybe just honestly identifying what our actual needs consist of - 5 gallons of fresh water rather than unlimited hot and cold running water? One warm room in the house is a necessity in freezing temperatures, but the whole house at 72F is more of a convenience or luxury. I stoked the wood stove for a week straight to stay comfortable, not to survive. Essentially I'm fumbling towards the idea that practicing for varying levels of collapse could lead to better prioritization when it's for real. I have my doubts whether this kind of practice will ever happen at a larger than neighborhood scale, but then again, that's the scale that actually matters when it's for real.

In Washington state we have an annual 'Great ShakeOut' on the third Thursday of October, which purports to be practice for the Big One (Juan de Fuca plate subduction zone 9.0 earthquake w/tsunami). Locally the annual event gets ignored except for a few facebook posts. BUT it could be a genuine opportunity to improve the learning curve ahead of the real thing, if we only took it seriously. And there are actively unhelpful aspects to the Red Cross "preparedness" plans, namely that they push the idea that everything will be back to business as usual in two weeks. The RC does have plenty of good suggestions for preparedness in general, but they grossly underestimate the scale and time frame of actual disasters.

I have read on a couple of prepper sites that you should indeed practice just what you have lived in this cold season. They suggest that on exercise consist of turning off your main electrical breaker and do without electricity for a day or two and use all your disaster plans to see where the holes are. I suspect that you could also turn your water off at the street meter and practice being with out running water. Maybe with a couple of practice sessions under your belt, you could turn off both the water and the electricity and see how your disaster plans hold up.

It seems an very sensible idea, but I have to say I haven't tried it yet myself. I need to come up with the means to run two freezers first.

Ken's picture

Yeah, the barn fridge and the big chest freezer are definitely vulnerable points in my systems too. I have a big semi-portable generator but it's gas powered and rope start and it's a bear to get going even when it's been run recently and my old rodeo injuries aren't acting up. I'm thinking that I've reached the age that I need to invest in a propane powered, battery start generator. I have a 500 gallon tank for the house heating system already sitting there, so hooking up to that is probably the simplest answer to keeping the well pump going and the freezer cold for me.

I've gone round and round about solar panels, batteries, generators, fuels, etc. and I've come around to the propane generator as the most cost effective way for me to go. Obviously a time will come when propane is no longer affordable/available, but at that point I will just have to build a smokehouse for the fish and venison and bury the freezer behind the garden as a clamp (small in-ground root cellar). Not looking forward to hand pumping water for the horses though...

Yes, I am sure a generator is in my future too. I like propane as a fuel, but gasoline may be more practical in an emergency. I will have to do some more study and thinking about it.

Ken's picture

Gasoline degrades much faster than diesel and is far more dangerous to have around and it will gum up carburetors if it sits a while without having run the carb dry before shutting down. Diesel is tempting to me, as I have a 500 gallon oil tank that would be a good way to buy off-road/farm fuel in bulk for my pickup, tractor and generator. Petroleum diesel will last a good while too, although it can grow crud at the bottom of the tank if you get water/condensation in there. I've tried using biodiesel but it is useless below about 40 degrees, which is most of the winter for me. Much of it comes from palm oil plantations that they mowed down tropical rain forests to plant too... Which leads me to propane.

Propane has significantly less energy per gallon than gasoline or diesel, but it's also less expensive per gallon, on the island anyway. More to the point, it never goes bad. It can sit in tank for years and burn just fine. Likewise it won't gum up your generator engine's carb. And I have a 500 gallon tank for the house already, so it's simple to hook up a permanent installed generator near the house where it means less distance to the electrical panel. Propane and gasoline already have to come to the island on private barges because of WSF (Washington State Ferry) rules, so at least the last leg of the supply chain is not WSF dependent - potentially an important point.

For short-term emergency use, I think a little portable gasoline generator would be a fine choice. Just run it dry after testing or using it and keep fresh gas on hand. If at all possible try to only run non-ethanol gasoline in it. The guys that work on small engines HATE ethanol... A small generator is pretty easy to pull start but once you get up to around 5 kilowatts it gets pretty darn painful if you have any old injuries. If your generator needs to handle a submersible well pump you will need one at least that size or better.

For long term, consistent use, a big diesel generator is really the only viable option to run a whole house but I wonder about the cash investment versus how much use it will really get in the next couple decades. If we get a 9.0 subduction zone shake, I am sure I'd be darn glad to have a big diesel system, but for ongoing, punctuated equilibrium collapse, I'm not sure the investment makes sense compared to a smaller propane powered system. One issue is the sound. Not that there aren't ways to mitigate generator noise but it's really quiet out where I am and a running generator when the grid is down is far from discreet in terms of security.

What you say about storage problems with gasoline and how it gums up the works is all too true and propane is ideal to run a generator from many stand points. It is what we run the family cabin backup generator on. However, I don't have a big propane tank and getting gasoline in an emergency may be easier then propane. In an emergency, I think I would rather use the propane to cook with or space heating and use gasoline to keep the freezers frozen.

Diesel generators are indeed wonderful, very quite, but brutally expensive, so are out of the question for me. I once took a class on making diesel from used fryer oil and it wasn't that hard, but in my location, companies with fleets of diesel trucks had already cornered the market on used oil. Even with petro diesel, you need to add an additive to keep it liquid in colder temperatures. It is my understanding that commercially sold diesel already comes with it in the winter time. Diesel engines can be made to run off of straight vegetable oil I believe, so I thought about how to grow an oil crop, but the work involved in producing the oil in large enough quantities to run an engine are probably beyond my capabilities.

David Trammel's picture

At 65 I have a shorter time frame than most people. I expect to be gone before we go completely dark.

And being urban in a city of several million I expect I'll always have some access to electricity. Though I'm expecting more and more occasional blackouts due to weather, disasters or deteriorating maintenance conditions / equipment supply issues in my future.

My biggest worry / need is a way to keep my freezers running in a blackout. Loosing the contents would put a serious dent in my pantry and cost me money. I'm leaning towards building a battery back up rather than a generator set up. I could rely on the grid to top it off. As long as it could handle the load of the freezers and a minor draw for incidentals for a week to 10 days it would work better for me than trying to set up a generator and store fuel.

There's also the issue of security. A running generator in a black out paints a big bull's eye on you. It tells everyone, that person might have other things we need like food too. I want to stay as under the radar as I can.

I expect that as conditions get worse economically, we'll see a push to charge more for peak electric during the day too. So if the batteries could be charged at night, then feed my needs during the day that would be an added plus.

I need to do a whole lot of research though. How long do batteries last, how many charges can I get, what kind of electrical control systems do I need? Cost? What haven't I thought of? Questions

Sweet Tatorman's picture

You wrote >There's also the issue of security. A running generator in a black out paints a big bull's eye on you.<
Your stated objective was to ride out 7-10 days without power. I think your above concern may be overblown for that timeframe.
Battery backup is a worthy topic and has been discussed some in these forums in the past. Unfortunately those discussions were tangential discussions in postings on other topics such as this one. Lack of a usable search function makes them hard to find. As this is a worthy topic I would suggest that you start a thread devoted to battery backup. My thoughts on this have evolved a bit since it was last discussed on these forums in response to evolving technology and relative pricing of various technology.

David Trammel's picture

I'm always concerned about home security. The last few years have seen a marked increase in burglary and theft here. Catalytic converters are getting sawed off in driveways left and right, even with people in the homes at the time. My neighbor had their air conditioner stolen. The thief just sawed the lines off and took the unit completely. So having an external generator would be a tempting target. I'd secure it naturally but anything secured can be unsecured.

And 7 days in not unusual for being without power here. I've had outages that long twice in the last decade. 1-2 more that only lasted 2-3 days. I think its because of the lush forest and tree coverage in St Louis. Heavy winds knock limbs onto the lines.

As for the search function here, yeah its one of the variety of things that needs to be fixed BUT the option I use here and on many other sites is the "site:" search string in Google.

Strange though, when I do that for battery, your blog post on the subject comes up, but the blog post is incomplete, I'll have to check on that.

Sweet Tatorman's picture

Thanks for the reminder about the "site:" goggle search hack. I think you have mentioned it before a few years back. I had not used it enough to remember it off the top of my head. It does find that battery blog post of mine as several different links, one of which is just the intro as you noted but the other links to the entirety of that post. The earlier thread with the discussion that I was probably thinking of is this one:
I think there is a least cost option for what you are trying to do that has a good balance of convenience and cost that also addresses your security concerns. It would involve both a battery (specifically a LiFePO4 type which can be charged very quickly compared to Lb-acid) and a small portable generator. You would only need to read a book for an hour or two sitting out in the yard with your shoot'n iron in your lap once every couple of days.

That seems really obvious, doesn't it?
What I'm trying to say is invest in a lot of square quart-size plastic freezer containers. Thrift shops sometimes have them. Fill with water and then put them in the freezer in any empty space.

You've made your own ice backup.

As you move food in and out, move freezer containers of water in and out. Yeah, it's work, but the added ice mass will keep the freezer contents frozen longer, maybe long enough to last until the power comes back on.

Restricting how much you open and close the door will help: that's the reason for the written list on the freezer door so you know what you've got and where it is. I am *NOT* anywhere nearly that organized.

Chest freezers stay cold better simply because all the cold air doesn't fall out when you open the door. They're also harder to use.

What about having a dedicated insulation blanket to go over the freezer for when you lose power? I know you can't use one when the freezer is running, but maybe something on the sides? Hot water heaters benefit from insulation blankets so I don't know why we don't insulate freezers better. Even partial insulation must be better than no insulation.