Mixing, matching and consolidating have become major themes in shipping produce by truck, brokers and other transportation agents say.

Finding the right combination of fruits and vegetables to make a full truckload is often a challenge, but it’s a business reality today, said Vicki Gable, business coordinator with Glendale, Ariz.-based Bigelow Truck Brokers Inc.

“Right now with the economy, we often entertain more LTL (Less-than Truck Load) loads, marrying up different customers to create a load,” Gable said.

“We normally work with full truckloads and we’ve noticed we’ve had to go a different avenue and do more LTL than we’ve ever done.”

Full truckloads, which require less product handling and fewer stops, are still the preferred mode, Gable said.

“We still try to stick with full truckloads but we do have customers where we are marrying up loads,” she said.

“You have to get product that has the same temperature. It’s a lot of work.”

Winter weather patterns have served to complicate matters, transportation industry members add.

“Our account executives have never worked harder in finding and matching capacity and rescheduling pickups and deliveries through the disruption from the storms,” said Kerry Byrne, executive vice president of Cincinnati-based Total Quality Logistics.

Weather is but one of the logistical challenges involved in making sure fruits and vegetables are shipped fresh and on time, said Ken Younger, owner of Sky Country Transportation in Boone, N.C.

“You have the whim of the weather, but you also have to have the trucks available to pick it up. Is product ready to load when trucks are scheduled to be there?” he asked.

LTLs are becoming more common, said Chuck Nelson, owner of New Braunfels, Texas-based Chuck’s Transport Inc.

But, he said, it’s sometimes difficult to anticipate what everybody’s needs might be.

“Some of your chain stores and some of your other businesses out there, they go down the pipeline and some of your staple commodities like grapefruit, oranges and potatoes and onions, it’s easy to project on those, but when you start on some of the specialty items, all of that is driven by day-to-day business by retail and the consumer end,” he said.

Finding the right product mix to consolidate into one load can be frustrating, said Sid Hooper, an agent with the McAllen office of Goose Transport Co.

“Don’t get me started,” Hooper said.

“Everybody on the truck wants to travel with the same product, but that never happens. You’ve got invariably product and temperature requirements all over the board. Part of the customers (want) to be the first one picked up and the first one delivered.”

That scenario opens up the opportunity for customer complaints, Hooper said.

“Somebody that’s on the truck will claim every time with day-late delivery or incompatible temperatures — just anything,” he said.

“I’ve seen six, seven, eight pallets at a time among the customer that should be taken two, three full loads a day. When you get slow business like that, there’s going to be somebody out there with two sharpened pencils trying to make money on any side of bill of lading he can.”

The trend toward consolidating loads does have its up side, said Mauro Moreno, owner of Nogales-based truck brokerage Aviva International LLC.

“I think it’s a very good market for storage facilities and warehouses,” he said. “It works out great and it keeps produce on the road here.”

Extra deliveries and pickups are just part of doing business today, Moreno said.

“It will never stop. It’s normal business,” he said.

“Some don’t need the straight loads. There are some orders for half-loads. It makes the truck go.”

Consolidating is more of a customer challenge and not a trucking-industry problem, said Kenny Lund, vice president of support operations for La Canada, Calif.-based Allen Lund Co. Inc.

“You can get help from the customer to get that stuff taken care of. It used to be all the time we shipped partials for customers,” he said. “We don’t do that much anymore.”

Yakima, Wash.-based fruit grower-shipper Columbia Marketing International Inc. is consolidating more loads than ever, but it does have its hurdles, said Bob Mast, vice president of marketing.

“It’s having the right product at the right place when you need it,” he said.

“Obviously, with the centralization of most of the buying that we’re seeing now, we’re probably seeing more adjustments to orders than we ever have.

“You can move product around and find the order has been adjusted and you need to move some more. It’s somewhat of a challenge. You almost have to have a buffer at each pickup location to adapt to changes — some residual of each of the products on hand with different sizes and grades.”