Making Produce Cargo Of Choice

The driver’s seat has always literally belonged to truckers. Now, figuratively speaking, truckers are increasingly in the driver’s seat.

We all know driver numbers are not keeping up with demand. It’s much easier to haul stable dry goods than fresh produce and floral. We need to commit to making the necessary changes, as the health of the entire produce and floral industries is at stake.

Jim Prevor and I wrote about Tackling Transportation Challenges in this column a year ago. I mentioned transportation-related issues as a top concern in our 2005 Member Needs Analysis. PMA volunteer leadership made it a key strategic issue resulting in the creation of a transportation task force co-chaired by Bud Floyd of C.H. Robinson Worldwide, Inc. and Bill Schuler of Castellini Co.

Surveying representatives from all segments of the supply chain, including retailers, distributors, grower/shippers and transportation providers, the task force examined the issues and how to proactively eliminate, or at least circumvent potentially disastrous problems. After much analysis, the transportation task force recently released its findings, Truck Transportation Best Practices for the Produce Industry, due for release at PMA’s upcoming Fresh Summit in San Diego.

This study focused solely on trucking and the factors we are able to control. While renewed interest in rail solutions can provide some needed alternatives, trucks will be the primary mode of transportation for many years to come. We are not able to affect other factors, such as hours-of-service rules, rising fuel costs and GDP growth.

The good news from this investigation is there are concrete steps we can take to make inroads into turning produce into a cargo of choice rather than the cargo of last resort.

Even better news is these steps are straightforward and reasonably simple, and many are inexpensive to implement. Better still is these steps will result in greater efficiencies and lower costs throughout the supply chain, as evidenced by these findings.

The first step requires an attitude adjustment in which we realize carriers and shippers/receivers are business partners and partnerships are always two-way streets.

• Mind your manners. Be a courteous business partner. Shippers and receivers will build loyalty, confidence, and trust with carriers by encouraging employees to extend simple courtesies and respect to drivers. Saying “Thank you,” “Have a safe trip,” and “We’re glad you arrived safely” goes a long way. Drivers also appreciate access to showers, coffee, snacks and other simple amenities when they can be provided.

• Time is money. Communicate schedules and changes. Address the issue of waiting times. Drivers like to load and unload quickly. They make money when driving, not waiting to load or unload. Shippers, receivers, and carriers should adopt a communications plan to keep all parties informed about appointments and wait times. Carriers can contact shippers and receivers two hours before arrival to find out their status; shippers and receivers can contact drivers when there will be a substantial delay in loading or unloading so drivers can make adjustments. Shippers and receivers can also establish and publish expectations for the elapsed time from when carriers arrive at the gate to when they depart.

• Handle rejection — develop efficient procedures. Procedures for handling rejected product should minimize the impact on the carriers’ ability to resume their schedules, especially when it is clear to all parties the carrier is not at fault. U.S. receivers will need to comply the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act (PACA) when developing such procedures ( To help determine liability in product quality disputes, long-haul shipments should employ temperature-recording devices mutually acceptable to all supply chain partners. (I wonder why our industry doesn’t make broader use of real-time temperature monitoring — not just recording — so out-of-range temperatures are signaled immediately to the driver. Liability for temperature abuse may be critical in assigning responsibility but does nothing to prevent the load from being spoiled. Why not use interactive technology to solve a problem rather than assign blame?)

• Quick payment is always appreciated and has become a competitive advantage for progressive companies. The report provides more detail with 16 best practice recommendations shippers and receivers should consider creating positive relations with the trucking community. A few points, not referenced above, are:

— All members of the produce supply chain approach transportation issues and disputes with an understanding of the impact on the business customer.

— Shippers and receivers negotiate pallet requirements rather than assume carriers will be responsible for pallet acquisition and/or disposal.

— Bills of lading should avoid confusion by being comprehensive and specific.

— All supply chain partners need to understand the requirements of the U.S. Bioterrorism Act of 2002. The PMA Guide to U.S. Bioterrorism Regulations (available to PMA members; details compliance.

— Truck unloading is a receiver’s function unless prior arrangements are made between parties.

— Shippers and receivers explore the potential for establishing consolidation centers where full loads of product can be cross-docked into mixed loads.

Doing business this way reminds me of the credit card advertisements that ask rhetorical questions. “What is the cost of a sincere thanks?” “A waiting area?” “A cup of coffee?”

The answer, I believe, is, “Priceless.”