Tackling Transportation Challenges

There is a perfect storm brewing now in the transportation sector of the produce and floral industries. Increasing fuel and liability insurance costs, declining availability of truck drivers and more governmental regulation are making our industry re-examine how we transport and inventory our products across North America. And contributing to the storm’s intensity is the fact that many truck drivers would rather haul dry goods than perishables.

PMA’s membership identified transportation-related issues as a top concern in our 2005 Member Needs Analysis. This was reinforced in discussions by PMA’s volunteer leadership this past spring and resulted in transportation challenges being identified as a key strategic issue for the association. To obtain a better sense of the range and intensity of issues that are contributing to our transportation challenges, in early August PMA organized a teleconference focus group of industry members who are active in the transportation sector.

The focus group research verified a number of issues including those mentioned above. However, the discussion also centered on the need for more efficient distribution patterns to address less-than-truckload (LTL) situations. There was a sense that some industry practices may be creating additional problems for truckers and receivers that make the hauling of produce and floral products less appealing. This all exacerbates the driver shortages that many parts of the country are experiencing as drivers simply choose not to haul produce and floral products or to take loads to certain receivers.

Here is a sampling of comments from the focus group that illustrate some of the issues. “The biggest problem we typically have with delivering to the mass market is the appointment times and the waiting.”

“We can’t have trucks going in on LTLs and dropping off two pallets. We’ve got to go in with straight loads to these receivers.”

“[Drivers] are going to find the easiest loads to do. They’re looking to just bump docks and they’re going to go to the dry freight arena to do that.”

“We’re finding it harder to find drivers, especially during the peak periods, to make the multiple pickups. These guys not only want to just bump docks, they want to do it within 25 miles of where they happen to be sitting right now.”

The occasional rejected load creates additional problems for drivers. “You sit there with a truckload full of melons or strawberries or whatever…while it ties up your equipment for a day or two days or three days and you’re left holding the bag. But you know you didn’t do anything wrong.”

When asked what issues are most important, one participant in the focus group summed it up this way: “It’s consolidation of products and taking care of the truck drivers in a greater fashion than we do today. The industry treats drivers as second-rate citizens and quite frankly, that shouldn’t be the case.”

There was also discussion on the impact of government regulations. Whether it’s coping with the hours of service regulations or coming into compliance with environmental emission regulations, the transportation industry is scrambling to stay in compliance.

PMA has organized a transportation task force that will be co-chaired by Bud Floyd of C.H. Robinson Worldwide, Inc. and William Schuler of Castellini Company and that will include representatives from all segments of the supply chain including retailers, distributors, grower-shippers and transportation providers.

The first order of business for the Task Force will be to analyze and find real business solutions to the concerns raised in PMA’s trade research, including driver shortages, the reluctance of some drivers to haul produce, the impact of government regulations and the need for more efficient distribution patterns.

Effective transportation is at the heart of a healthy produce and floral industry. While we recognize that PMA can’t resolve some of the transportation issues like rising fuel costs, PMA is committed to playing a leadership role in providing a forum for our members across the supply chain to discuss potential solutions.

We also understand the challenges we can impact won’t be solved overnight. There are no easy solutions. But it is important to remember that we have the collective wisdom of the entire produce supply chain at our disposal. Our history has proven that we are at our best when we are working together to create and implement a plan of action to solve our problems. I am confident we will be able to tackle our transportation challenges in the same manner.

In addition to our work on the Transportation Task Force, PMA plans to focus attention on transportation throughout its upcoming Fresh Summit, PMA’s International Convention and Exposition scheduled in Atlanta this Nov. 4-8.

Included in the Fresh Summit program is a Town Hall meeting, a panel discussion led by logistics company experts on challenges of trucking and an education session on complexities of global shipping.

For more information, visit the PMA Website at www.pma.com/FreshSummit.