(Dec. 28) High fuel costs and other transportation-related challenges continue to keep importers of Central American fruits and vegetables on their toes.

Mike McGee, vice president of production and grower development for L&M Cos. Inc., Raleigh, N.C., said he has noticed an increase in the use of break-bulk shipments and a decrease in container shipments from Central America.

The reason? High fuel costs, he said, are forcing importers to save money on transportation wherever they can.

“It generally costs less to ship by break-bulk,” he said. “You can trim up to a $1 per box. I see that trend continuing.”

McGee also said transportation options in Central America have been narrowed in recent years by decisions by shippers to limit or discontinue service.

“ATL (Associated Transport Line LLC, Houston) discontinued service out of Panama,” he said. “We’re disappointed that there’s one less player there. There are also some long-term concerns about discontinued service off the west coast of South America.”

Of course, once product gets to the U.S., the transportation situation doesn’t get any easier, McGee said. L&M, he said, is lucky to have its own transportation affiliate in the same building. Still, that doesn’t make the company immune from the same trucking-related headaches everyone else faces.

“Trucks are tight everywhere, and I don’t see any drastic improvements anytime soon,” he said.

Beginning this season, L&M is bringing all of its Central American vegetables to its Immokalee, Fla., facility. McGee said the move will allow the company to consolidate all of its import vegetable operations.

It’s also good for keeping truckers happy, he said — never something to take lightly. Instead of making two stops — at Immokalee and Pompano Beach, Fla., where the Central American vegetables use to come in — trucks now only need to make one.

“Anything you can do to reduce the pickups for trucks helps,” he said.

For the most part, transporting fruits and vegetables from Central America to the U.S. is relatively headache-free for Brooks Tropicals Inc., Homestead, Fla.

“It has really been pretty smooth,” said Craig Wheeling, chief executive officer, characterizing this season’s shipments so far. “We’ve been doing this for so long, and because we try to do it on a year-round basis, we have a system and a support infrastructure at ports in Central America. It works pretty well.”

But Brooks isn’t totally immune from transportation-related problems, Wheeling said.

“We got hit with a $1 million fuel surcharge from one shipping line this year,” he said. “It’s been tough to control the costs on fuel.”