Transportation issues have caused headaches and delays for potato shippers this winter, particularly in the Red River Valley.
Paul Dolan, president of Associated Potato Growers Inc., Grand Forks, N.D., said the delays have been significant, largely because of winter storms.
“Transportation has been a nightmare. It’s normal to be an issue during deer season through Thanksgiving, but trucking has been inadequate, to say the least, for the entire season,” he said.
In fact, bidding wars have broken out in some extreme cases. Shippers have to compete for the few trucks that are available in each area, a problem not specific to Red River Valley.
Jim Ehrlich, executive director of the Colorado Potato Administration Committee, Monte Vista, Colo., tells of a trucker that arrived at a warehouse where the employees were unable to load him for three minutes, so he left and went to another warehouse.
These winter storms have hit the country at a most inopportune time for potato shippers.
For example, February brings an increase in shipments to support the Idaho Potato Commission’s Potato Lover’s month.
“This is a huge contest for our state with more than 4,000 stores estimated to enter this year. All of that traffic within one month causes a huge demand on the trucking industry,” said Seth Pemsler, vice president of retail/international for the Eagle, Idaho-based commission.
And delays during this time are unacceptable.
“If you set a timeline for an ad, you can’t be a week late on getting those shipments in,” Pemsler said.
Coupled with fewer drivers, the weather has caused a lot of delays, according to Dolan.
“Trucks are in such high demand we just aren’t able to ship the quantity of potatoes we need to,” Dolan said.
He estimates the issue has put the season behind about two weeks.
Ryan Wahlen, sales manager for Pleasant Valley Potatoes, Aberdeen, Idaho, agreed.
“The transportation issues have definitely impacted us,” he said.
“The rest of the country has had a lot of extreme winter weather and those storms have impacted the normal flow of trucks from east to west. I’m not sure if they’ve been hung up there or simply don’t want to cross the areas of the country that have been having those storms."
The problem is especially difficult for shippers in more remote areas, with less truck traffic going through.
“There aren’t a lot of other products being hauled in this area, and truckers like to have a full load all of the time, so they aren’t going to come into the town empty,” Ehrlich said.
Unfortunately, in some cases, the trucking frustration is even impacting prices and promotions.
“We haven’t been able to promote on many ads due to the transportation problems we’ve been having. You can’t put something on ad and then not be able to get the supplies there,” Dolan said.
In addition, Dolan said the trucking shortage has caused the B-sized market to drop in price.
“With the low truck supply, you’re not able to ship the steady supply of Bs that you’d like to so they get backed up in the warehouse. Buyers realize this and know you need to move them so when you do get a truck, you’re more at the mercy of the buyer,” Dolan said.
Relief in sight?
Suppliers are hopeful the trucking issues will be relieved as springs hits.
Ehrlich also hopes the future will bring some relief in this area, perhaps in part thanks to an organization called the Coalition for Transportation Productivity.
“They’re trying to increase the weight limit for trucks. If you can add another axle and put on more weight, you can haul more and get by with less trucks since we already have a shortage,” Ehrlich said.
Of course, the light at the end of the transportation tunnel isn’t quite visible yet.
“There’s a study mandated to determine whether it’s safe of not and the results are coming in now so we’ll know soon if they approve it,” he said.
Ehrlich said the practice is already considered safe in Europe.
Growers are turning to rail transportation more and more. Some have upped their rail shipments to adjust for truck shortages in an attempt to avoid delays and supply gaps.
“Some shippers have been able to maintain normal shipping levels by utilizing more rail shipments,” Wahlen said.
However, winter weather can cause delays for rail traffic as well.
“Both trucks and rail shipments can get delayed up to a week in a bad Midwest winter storm,” Pemsler said.