(June 13)FRESNO, Calif. -- A truck shortage and soaring trucking rates have hit California's Central Valley and desert regions as area shippers gear up for 4th of July promotions.

The shortage has been especially troublesome for desert melon growers, said Rodney Van Bebber, sales manager for Pappas & Co., Mendota. The desert melon deal is in full swing, and with fewer trucks and high cross-country rates, more of the melons are going into Los Angeles, where the wholesale price can be as much as $1 less per carton, Van Bebber said.

The Central Valley season does not begin until about July 1, but desert melon growers have faced truck shortages and higher shipping rates, Van Bebber said.

"And the shipper eats the cost," he said.

Luis Gonzales, sales assistant for Ballantine Produce Co. Inc., Reedley, said the rate from California to Boston is typically $5,200 this time of year, but some truckers are charging as much as $7,000 for the trip, he said.

Shippers report that the cost of trucking produce from California to New York, which generally runs from $5,200 to $5,500 is now running as high as $6,500.

Gonzales said he has not had problems finding trucks for hauling stone fruit, but rates have been rising fast.

Ballantine has added a few cents onto the cost of each carton of fruit, but that has not fully covered the increased trucking costs, Gonzales said.

Gonzales said that part of the problem is that trains now offer lower rates for transport of products from the East Coast to the West Coast than do trucks. So some companies are shipping by rail and that reduces the number of trucks going from the East Coast to the West Coast, affecting availability.

Even rates from the West Coast to the East Coast for rail transport are lower than trucking costs, so it could lead to a return of produce being shipped from California by rail, which was the norm in the first half of the 20th century. The only drawback is that rail is slower than trucking, taking about a week to go from one coast to the other as opposed to a few days.

Rick Rattazzi, vice president of perishables for Johanson Transportation Service, Fresno, offers other reasons for the truck shortage, which he calls severe. Rattazzi said rising fuel prices have eaten away at trucker profits in recent years.

Also, insurance rates for truck drivers have skyrocketed, he said.

"A lot of guys have gone out of business, and good, solid carriers are really suffering," Rattazi said.

In addition, trucking companies, which like to trade in their trucks for new ones every few years, now find that because so many trucks have been sold or repossessed, they can get no equity for their used trucks.

"Everything snowballs," Rattazi said.

The bottom line, Rattazi said, is that truckers need this year with its higher rates, to get healthy again.

But the situation is having a negative impact on the spring produce deal, he said. Rattazi said one desert cantaloupe shipper recently had 63 scheduled trucks fail to show up at the cantaloupe shed.

That translates to about 75,000 cartons of melons that didn't get shipped, Rattazi said.

And although some shippers reported a slight easing in truck availability on June 13, they expect problems in moving fruit for the 4th of July holiday.

Rattazi said that because the 4th falls on a Thursday, a lot of people will take a four-day holiday, and that could mean higher demand for fruit, he said.