Potato and onion producers have more to worry about than lifting weak consumption for their produce. They also have to grapple with transportation shortages across the country.
Railcars are full and trucks are without drivers. Producers for both commodities across the country report shipping costs are high, making it hard to keep prices down for customers and end consumers but also giving way to creative solutions.
“Adequate availability for transportation is an issue nationwide,” said Bob Hale, president of Riverpoint Farms, Hermiston, Ore., noting the problem is worse than in years past. Hale said products are still getting to his buyers, but it requires more management time to make it happen.
“In general, it’s cutting into the profit slice for everyone involved in the chain,” he said. “Some of the bigger trucking companies have trucks parked because they don’t have enough drivers.”
Nick Hulsey, onion and potato category manager for L&M Cos., Raleigh, N.C., said the shortages are the result of a confluence of fewer owners/operators of smaller fleets, fewer drivers and stable demand.
Frank Muir, president of the Idaho Potato Commission, Eagle, said Union Pacific Railroad is concerned and will partake in an upcoming commission meeting that seeks to get more reefer trucks on the rails.
“It has been a challenge,” he said. “Demand is there.”
Ralph Schwartz, vice president of marketing, sales and innovation for Potandon Produce, Idaho Falls, Idaho, said the shortage usually comes around Thanksgiving, but this year has been all season and from every growing area.
“Other solutions are out there,” he said, including 80- to 100-car fast trains from the West Coast to the East Coast packed with apples, potatoes and onions that arrive in two or three days. “It might eliminate the need for 300 trucks being tied up.”
Schwartz also cited Union Pacific Distribution Services, which integrates rail transportation with equipment providers, motor carriers, terminal operators and warehouses.
“There is some really great outside-the-box thinking that helps our industry,” he said.
Another alternative that is helping is loading trucks at a central location with products from three or four producers.
“It’s important to be thinking of solutions that are more advantageous to attract truckers,” Schwartz said.
Jessica Peri, retail sales manager at Peri and Sons, Yerington, Nev., said she is lucky to be in a free port state where trucks unload into warehouses and look for new loads.
“We have seen an increase in orders just because we can get trucks,” she said, noting she enjoys a freight advantage for the southeast, Texas and lower Midwest states. “We have access to more trucks and no other commodities competing for trucks.”
Hulsey is hoping to capitalize from the central location of L&M’s Kansas onion fields. “We’re excited about being centrally located in the country,” he said of the relatively new deal for the company.