(Dec. 1) Fuel prices may have been on a downward slope in recent weeks, but, for produce shippers, the landscape for trucking and the constant jostling for vehicles remains decidedly uphill.

Oil futures reached a five-month low of $56.35 per barrel Nov. 30 on the New York Mercantile Exchange, dramatically lower than the $70-per-barrel rates of only a few weeks earlier.

“Even though diesel has backed off, it’s still excessive compared to a year ago,” said Jimmy DeMatteis, president of Norwalk, Iowa-based Des Moines Truck Brokers.

As of Nov. 28, the national average price for a gallon of diesel fuel was $2.479, according to the Department of Energy. New England had the highest average price, at $2.619, just ahead of the West Coast, at $2.617. California was at $2.559. The lowest prices were found in the Lower Atlantic region, at $2.394. The Midwest was next, at $2.442.

Prices had peaked nationally Oct. 24, at $3.157. The Midwest and Rocky Mountain regions led the price spikes among all U.S. regions, at $3.235 and $3.232, respectively.

A year earlier, the national average price for diesel fuel was $2.116. California had the highest prices, averaging $2.287. New England was second-highest, at $2.258. The Gulf Coast, Lower Atlantic and Midwest had the lowest prices, at $2.053, $2.082 and $2.086.

What all of that means for truck rates and availability is a mixed bag, said Ty Tallakson, assistant manager for the Los Angeles branch of the La Canada-based company.

“We still have a lot of trucks,” Tallakson said. “They’re still asking for top dollar to move loads. But the refrigerated department is not quite as busy as it was before, so we are seeing some rates (come down) a little bit on the refer (refrigerated) loads. And, when there are more refers available to take loads, that, of course, affects the drive-in business, also, and it’s a little easier to cover our loads, and we’re able to shop a little bit for a little better rate.”

The number of available trucks remains too low, in spite of falling fuel prices, said Chuck Nelson, owner of San Antonio-based Chuck’s Transport Inc.

“Just because fuel prices are coming down doesn’t mean there’s going to be more trucks on the road,” he said. “That number is declining slowly but surely. It hasn’t eased the equipment availability, but it sure has made it nicer on the cash flow.”