PHILADELPHIA — Produce movement at one of the leading U.S. ports remains strong.

Unloadings at the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority have increased for one importer.

The go-ahead for a Delaware River deepening project is supposed to help boost import volume, distributors report.

The slowing economy, however, has affected fruit and vegetable movement.

Cargo movement is reported to be on a slow but continued improvement, said Joseph Menta, a port spokesman.

According to Menta, the port as of this spring handled 136,740 metric tons of fruit products, a 52% increase over the 90,172 tons of the same cargo handled by the same point in 2008.
That volume is down from previous years but relates more to the overall economic decline, not cargo entering other ports, Menta said.

The Philadelphia region remains big in ports, said Mike Maxwell, president of Procacci Bros. Sales Corp., which imports and distributes many Southern Hemisphere commodities.

“Imports will get bigger and bigger as our thirst for produce continues,” he said. “The port has geared up for many years to increase movement. It has won one of many battles to come. Everyone is thinking of dredging the river to make it accommodate larger ships, which will bring better synergies.”

Working through importers, Procacci imports numerous containers of produce from South America yearly.

In April, an Army Corps of Engineers environmental assessment concluded a proposed deepening of the Delaware River would not significantly adversely affect the river’s environment.

The port authority said the assessment confirms that the project’s environmental effects have been thoroughly studied and that the project should bring high-paying jobs to the region.

The $379 million project would deepen the Delaware River’s main shipping channel from 40 feet to 45 feet.

Mark Levin, co-owner of bananas and tropicals importer M. Levin & Co. Inc., said the project should help boost business and that bigger ships would transport additional or different types of produce from different regions of the world.

“It will bring in more commerce to the area as well as the fact that Philadelphia seems to be a hub for that kind of activity,” he said. “We have a big traffic pattern here. From I-95, we can be in Toronto in 10 hours and Florida in 14 hours. There’s a lot of trucking transportation centers here because we’re centrally located to the action.”
Since 2006, Levin has begun importing tropicals such as coconuts, plantains, yucca and chayote.

Ron Carkoski, president and chief executive officer of Four Seasons Produce Inc., Ephrata, said the planned port improvements should help boost produce imports.

“It will allow ships to be loaded differently and at more reasonable costs,” he said. “Exporters will be able to disperse freight in vessels across more containers. The opportunity with that product continues as well. It’s not something that seems to have decreased in any kind of demand.”

Four Seasons, through its Earth Source Trading entity, imports a wealth of Southern Hemisphere product, including Chilean grapes, lemons and soft fruit, Peru blueberries and onions, Argentinean pears, and New Zealand apples and pears through multiple Northeastern ports including Port Elizabeth and Wilmington, Del.

Miami-based Turbana Corp. relocated its import warehouse operations from Bridgeport, Conn., to the Port of Philadelphia during the spring of 2008.

Turbana uses Pier 82 to unload refrigerated containers of bananas, pineapples, vegetables and other tropicals shipped from Columbia and Costa Rica.

Movement at the port has been on the upswing, said James Haas, port manager for Turbana’s Philadelphia operation.

“We are experiencing the growth we anticipated when we came to Philadelphia, but because of industry supply, the fruit isn’t there,” Haas said. “We are moving more product through our facility here than we were able to do in Connecticut.”

Turbana has improved its port warehousing operations by installing a shore- side crane that more efficiently unloads containers and pallets versus using cranes installed on the ships. Turbana also installed a cooler humidification and racking system that properly hydrates the fruit.

Though Turbana used dock workers that were skilled in unloading fruit, logistics, Haas said, were a little difficult during Turbana’s first year.  However, Turbana’s Philadelphia operations and productivity, he said, have since improved.

To improve logistics, Turbana had Horizon Stevedoring Inc. recently install a container stacking system.

Previously, Turbana had to ground the containers and leave others on costly chassis taking up valuable space. The reefer bank allows Turbana to stack 112 containers four high and four deep, Haas said.

Pinto Bros. Inc. buys the keitt variety mango from Puerto Rico from importers.

“We are the only ones in this area doing Puerto Rican mangos, mangos that are from the U.S.,” said Todd Penza, a Pinto salesman. “I would eat a keitt variety over a tommy atkins variety any day of the year.”

On the river dredging project, Maxwell said he hopes the project can get started soon and not drag on for years.

The deepening project traces its roots to 1983, when the U.S. Congress directed the Army Corps to study modifying the existing main shipping channel. A feasibility study that included numerous environmental and economic studies commenced in 1987 and approved the project to Congress, which in 1992 gave its authorization. Environmental groups have fought the expansion for years.