NYSSA, Ore. — Rail, long criticized by Treasure Valley grower-shippers, is becoming a popular option for some.

Kay Riley, general manager of Snake River Produce Inc., said rail service is much better than it used to be.

“Rail is a big part of what we do,” he said. “In the past, we had difficulties with deliveries. Now, there are virtually no problems.”

As recently as a few years ago, Snake River might ship 10 loads of onions out of the Treasure Valley by Union Pacific trains, Riley said. Last year, the company shipped at least 75, he said.

As much as 25% of the company’s onions could go out by rail this season, Riley said — either via Union Pacific cars that stop at the siding behind the company, or after getting trucked up to Wallula, Wash., where Railex cars take them to the East Coast.

“The old UP cars were very poor,” Riley said. “But they’ve remanufactured them. They now have (refrigerated) units on them like a truck. The service has improved dramatically.”

Truck availability, meanwhile, has left a little to be desired, Riley said — a big change from just two years ago.

“Availability’s a little more difficult than I expected,” he said. “When the recession kicked in two years ago, and the gas bubble burst and oil was $35 or $40 a barrel, we had trucks coming out our ears.”

That same recession, however, knocked a number of truckers out of business, Riley said, leading to shortages last year that could continue this year.

Bob Komoto, sales manager for Ontario-based Ontario Produce Co. Inc., agreed.

“The trucking situation is kind of tough,” he said. “More companies have gone out of business. It will still be a little bit of a struggle this year.”

Because of that, Ontario Produce, like other shippers, has found rail to be a more attractive option, Komoto said.

“We use rail when we can,” he said. “We use more than we did 10 years ago. There was a period where the service wasn’t very good. In the last five or six years they’ve added new cars, cars have been refurbished, new refrigeration units have been installed that are similar to truck reefers.”

Jon Watson, president of J.C. Watson Co., Parma, Idaho, is another fan of rail.

“We’ve picked up a few new areas done by rail,” Watson said. “The last four or five years, they’ve done a real good job.”

J.C. Watson has good, long-term relationships with trucking companies, Watson said. Even so, it can still be hard work to find trucks.

“It’s not enough today to sell onions, you have to sell onions on wheels,” Watson said. “We have two people who work full time on it. It’s always kind of a challenge.”

Champion Produce Inc., Parma, Idaho, ships about 5% to 10% of its onions by rail, said John Wong, the company’s sales manager.

Like most shippers in the Treasure Valley, Champion tilts heavily toward foodservice, and foodservice buyers tend to prefer trucks because product arrives more quickly and is fresher, Wong said.

Buyers also tend to want to use product within seven to 14 days of delivery, Wong said. With the huge loads rail provides — one rail car can carry as much as three semis — hitting those turnover targets is more difficult with rail, he said.

Rail was a better option in the 1970s and in the early 2000s, when the industry experienced a truck shortage, Wong said.

Now, with the downturn in the economy, truck rates are more competitive, he said.

And while railroads have done a good job in recent years of upgrading cars, there’s still a lot of physical work that goes into loading and unloading, Wong said — something many customers aren’t willing to take on.

Rail service for onion deliveries took a big step backwards last year when the railroads announced they would no longer be responsible for shipments delivered late after Dec. 15, said Jerry Baker, owner of Ontario-based Baker Packing Co.

“Rail should be a good way to ship to the major terminals, but the responsibility should be on the railroads,” he said.

If trucks don’t arrive on time, by contrast, they’re late, and the trucking companies bear the responsibility, Baker said.

Truck availability, meanwhile, is probably better than it was a decade ago, Baker said, but it still causes shippers headaches — and lightens their wallets.

“It’s usually a bit of a struggle,” he said. “And rates are creeping up all the time.”

Those rising costs are felt keenly by Treasure Valley shippers, whose onions often travel great distances before they get to market, said Grant Kitamura, president of Ontario-based Murakami Produce Co., which has a marketing agreement with Idaho Falls, Idaho-based Potandon Produce LLC.

“Most of our onions go back east, but a lot of customers want to buy local,” he said. “Fuel costs have been a big factor.”