A Grower’s worst nightmare is plants sitting in a greenhouse, primed and ready for retail, with no way to ship them. Unfortunately, Jason Parks, operations manager at Parks Brothers Farms in Van Buren, Ark., knows what it is like when that nightmare turns into reality.
When it came time to ship plants this past spring, Parks couldn’t find enough drivers to make deliveries, even though several trucking companies like J.B. Hunt and USA Trucking are located nearby. And that ended up costing the company in the long term.
“We probably contacted between 50 and 75 trucking companies to no avail,” Park says. “In one instance, we contacted the USA logistics division, who called more than 30 companies and all of them said no.”
Parks says the company offered to pay drivers whatever their asking prices were and extended bonuses. Many still said no. It got to the point that in some cases he couldn’t tell his customers when or if they were getting their deliveries. For the first time, the company had to put some customers off a week because it couldn’t deliver product. It also ended up delivering on Saturdays during peak season, which inconvenienced its customers.
After a lot of hand wringing and pure frustration, Parks found a flatbed trucking company that would ship for him, but not without a considerable cost that he estimates was 30 to 50 percent more than the company usually pays for shipping.
“We did one run in Texas that caught my attention,” Parks says. “We had to pay per mile and per stop, plus we had to guarantee them so many miles. The run had 12 drops on it. We paid around $4,800 for the run and there was only $15,000 in sales on the whole truck, so that run cost us around 30 percent of our sales.”
Another alternative Parks used was going smaller, with box trucks, which can be run commercially with non-CDL drivers, as long as they keep a log of their hours. While it helped alleviate some of the strain of getting product out, it still added to the cost.
New Hours-Of-Service-Rules Disrupt The Trucking Industry
Although many factors play in, Parks blames a majority of his troubles on the new hours-of-service regulations for truckers, enacted by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) on July 1, 2013.
According to the FMCSA website (http://1.usa.gov/1vM4Srv), the new rules
• reduce the maximum average work week for truckers from 82 hours to 70 hours
• require a 34-hour restart period after working 70 hours that includes two 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. rest periods
• mandate a 30-minute break during the first eight hours of a shift
• retain the current 11-hour daily driving limit and the 14-hour work day.
“These fatigue-fighting rules for truck drivers were carefully crafted based on years of scientific research and unprecedented stakeholder outreach,” said FMCSA Administrator Anne S. Ferro, in a press release that came out the day the rules took effect.
“The result is a fair and balanced approach that will result in an estimated $280 million in savings from fewer large truck crashes and $470 million in savings from improved driver health. Most importantly, it will save lives.”
The trucking industry is already struggling to retain and recruit drivers due to retirement, falling pay and long hours away from home. During the comment period for the new regulations, both independent truckers and trucking companies expressed concerns about reduced productivity and driver shortages. And critics of the regulations say businesses that rely on just-in-time deliveries could suffer as a result, not only with difficulty getting drivers, but also due to increased shipping costs.
“It has become a driver’s market. With drivers becoming more selective about what jobs they take,” Parks says. “They are less willing to push racks off the truck and make six to 12 stops on a run.”
Since most greenhouse and nursery operations do a majority of their shipping on a seasonal basis, it can be hard to secure drivers during crunch times because trucking companies often place priority on year-round customers first.
“I understand their dilemma,” says Terri Bates, co-owner of Capital Caladiums Company in south-central Florida. “But that doesn’t help me get my product out of Florida at a reasonable price.”
An unusually frigid winter and late spring caused orders to back up in Bates’ area. The problem multiplied when trucking companies didn’t have enough drivers and trailers to move product out fast enough. When they could ship, Bates says prices were higher than normal and delivery was delayed at times — enough to cause plant damage.
Back-Up Plans For Next Spring
Bates says she doesn’t believe the trucking problems are going to get any better next year, even if weather isn’t a factor, and she is already booking full truck loads for next spring.
“I have talked with my customers and some independent truckers that have refrigerated containers,” she says. “My plan is to load a truck for an area, for example, the Midwest, and have the trucks make the drops. All the Midwest customers will have to agree to ship on those weeks, and the company will pay the freight and pro-rate it out to its customers.”
Saunders Brothers, a wholesale nursery in Piney River, Va., experienced problems similar to Capital Caladiums Company’s. Due to a sluggish March, it was forced to play catch-up on unshipped plants and respond to better than average new demand, which forced a tremendous amount of volume through a small window. It became difficult to find drivers and have enough infrastructure to get everything done.
To solve the problem, management brought in additional companies whenever possible and shipped more plants on disposable racks to turn trucks faster, says Sales Manager Robert Saunders, who also says he is planning ahead to avoid trouble next spring.
“We hope to bring in additional companies and trucks,” he says. “We are also looking at ways to unload trucks faster, and we may start using truck brokers instead of shipping 100 percent of our product on trailers. Additionally, we are investigating alternative means to handle larger plants to minimize hands-on labor during unloading.”
No one knows for sure what the full impact of the new trucking regulations will be on the greenhouse industry. It is too soon to tell; however, it is not too soon to plan ahead and make a back-up plan this fall to avoid problems down the road.