With many grower-shippers reporting difficulty finding enough trucks, rail should continue to be an attractive option for getting Treasure Valley onions to market.
“We used rail a lot last year, and it was very successful,” said Kay Riley, general manager of Nyssa, Ore.-based Snake River Produce Inc.
“If anything, (rail) will grow.”
Snake River uses Union Pacific cars that stop at the siding behind the company as well as Railex cars, Riley said. With Railex, onions are trucked to Wallula, Wash., then put on cars that take them to the East Coast.
In the past, Riley and other area shippers found rail service out of the Treasure Valley to be severely lacking. Service has improved dramatically, though, and cars are now refrigerated.
Snake River, for instance, used to ship maybe 10 loads of onions out by Union Pacific trains. Now, between Union Pacific and Railex, the number is approaching 100.
Not only has rail service improved dramatically, Riley said, but the deterioration of the trucking industry also has played a big role in shippers’ looking more and more to rail.
“We have a chronic transportation situation,” Riley said, referring to frequent shortages.
“The whole system is on a just-in-time basis.”
It wouldn’t take much, Riley said, for that whole system to break down. The trouble started during the recession, when thousands of truckers got off the roads for good, Riley said.
“So many went out of business, and they haven’t come back,” he said.
Bob Komoto, sales manager for Ontario, Ore.-based Ontario Produce Co. Inc., said it’s not high fuel costs that are driving valley shippers to rail.
“Trucks are just plain short,” he said. “You take what’s available.”
Railroad rates were highly competitive in 2010, and as a result, more onions shipped by rail out of the Treasure Valley than in previous years, said John Wong, sales manager for Parma, Idaho-based Champion Produce Inc.
New refrigeration systems, installed about five years ago, make rail a much more attractive option, he said.
“We’re on the main line of the Union Pacific, which is quite an advantage price-wise,” Wong said.
That said, it’s hard to anticipate what rates will be in the coming season, and how much Champion and other shippers will choose rail over trucks, Wong said.
Railex isn’t as attractive an option as standard railroad service, Wong said. With the added freight cost to truck onions to Wallula before they’re loaded onto Railex cars, trucking is often a comparably priced option.
But Champion is still happy to have Railex as an option.
“It’s definitely a nice avenue to have in November and December when there are truck shortages,” Wong said.
Some Treasure Valley grower-shippers, however, are less optimistic on rail.
Grant Kitamura, president of Ontario-based Murakami Produce Co., said rail shipments tend to end at terminal markets. Murakami, however, likes to ship straight to its end users.
“We ship a few by rail, but the vast majority are by truck,” he said.
“It’s the makeup of our customer base.”