NEWARK, Del. - In light of the truck driver shortage and other transportation problems, the Produce Marketing Association wants to ensure that deliveries of fresh produce will reach their destination.
Just a little over a year ago, PMA formed a 19-member transportation task force, made up of retailers, shippers and carriers. The group has met regularly over the past year to review what can be changed or controlled and to develop a set of best practices. Those best practices, aimed at segments up and down the supply chain, will be released before the end of the month, the co-chairs told SN.
"PMA's leadership was worried about transportation issues and their effect on the future," said Bud Floyd, co-chair of the task force and vice president of marketing for C.H. Robinson Worldwide, one of the world's largest transportation services companies. "Obviously, there are some issues, like fuel prices, we can't do anything about, but there are others we can deal with."
With the truck driver shortage top of mind, PMA wants to be sure the produce industry will get its share of haulers.
Even though transporting fresh produce traditionally pays more, long-distance drivers are diminishing so quickly in number that the question is will they choose a less challenging load to carry.
"We absolutely want to make produce the load of choice and a lot [of drivers] don't want to carry it because it requires special handling, inspection on arrival, seeing that specs of the contract are met," said Bill Schuler, task force co-chair, and president of Castellini Company.
"We want to take the hassle out for the driver. We're short 20,000 drivers now, and that will grow to 111,000 short by 2014. I think it's safe to say communication is the key - between shippers, carriers and receivers. It's paramount."
Terry Humfeld, PMA vice president, said he thinks part of the problem stems from the way drivers are treated.
"Generally speaking, they aren't treated well," Humfeld said. "But little changes could be made. A 'please,' a 'thank you,' getting paid on time. Those things matter."
Keeping the driver waiting at the unloading dock, too, is costing the driver money. Certainly that is true at the vendor end as well. But retailers and shippers can make sure they have enough labor on hand to keep things moving, the co-chairs pointed out.
"When a guy is 98.3% on time, he doesn't want to wait 2+ hours before unloading," Floyd said. "We are talking to drivers to get their input. Retailers need to know that drivers have a choice and they will make a choice."
There are so many thing that can happen that, with a little planning, could be alleviated. For instance, when a load of produce is rejected, the driver often is punished by having to wait until the issue is resolved.
"There needs to be a plan in place," Humfeld said. "Digital cameras should be on hand and there should be a way to reach the shipper no matter what the hour at his end."
Some retailers have taken steps to make deliveries easier for drivers. For example, Wegmans Food Markets realizes drivers need to get unloaded and in and out fast, Floyd agreed.
Wegmans has a representative serving on PMA's task force. Food Lion, Schnuck Markets, Costco Wholesale and Loblaws are also represented on the committee.
While retailers told SN they're looking into rail transport, most produce will continue to be shipped by truck.
"For the most part, America moves by truck," Schuler said. "If it goes by rail, it still has to be picked up at the other end."
Humfeld said many factors came together this year to make transportation issues move up on PMA's priority list. As truckers retire, recruits are scarce, and that's led to a shortage of drivers. New regulations limiting hours of service for long-distance drivers went into effect last fall, and fuel costs continue to spiral.
"In fact, our president [Bryann Silbermann] called it the perfect storm," Humfeld said. "It is critical."