Washington and Oregon potato grower-shippers are keeping a wary eye on fuel prices and truck availability, but good rail service and proximity to overseas markets are taking the edge off their concern.
The effects of high fuel prices in 2012 will be mitigated in part by the fact that grower-shippers are so well-prepared for them, said Dave Long, chief executive officer of the Othello, Wash.-based United Fresh Potato Growers of Washington-Oregon.
“Growers budgeted a little extra for fuel,” he said. “We knew that fuel would be up. We’re going to have supplies.”
Growers even received an unexpected surprise when prices dropped in early to mid-June, Long said.
“Hopefully that will continue, or at least stay” at current prices, he said.
Even with high unemployment rates, people are not going into trucking like they used to, said Chris Voigt, executive director of the Moses Lake-based Washington State Potato Commission.
“Transportation is always a challenge, and unfortunately not a lot of people are aspiring to be truck drivers,” Voigt said. “A lot of drivers are getting close to retirement age.”
Fortunately for Washington growers, Voigt said, rail is a better option than it used to be, thanks to Riverhead, N.Y.-based Railex Corp., which in 2006 established service from Wallula, Wash., to Rotterdam, N.Y.
“Railex is able to get (potatoes to market) on a very cost-competitive, reliable basis,” he said. “Folks who use it love it. It’s been an integral part here in Washington.”
The cost of fuel when Washington and Oregon potato growers begin shipping later this summer was anybody’s guess as of mid-June, said Les Alderete, director of production and grower development for Raleigh, N.C.-based L&M Cos. Inc., which sources out of the Sunnyside, Wash., area.
What’s more clear, however, is the likelihood that trucks could be harder to get this season, Alderete said.
“Transportation could be tight,” he said. “Last year there were plenty of trucks, but it’s tight now.”
The shortage is due to a variety of factors, Alderete said. Some truckers have gone out of business in the past year, others have detoured to the natural gas boom in North Dakota.
“Everyone here in Idaho Falls seems to have a truck running to North Dakota,” he said.
As of late June, few Oregon growers were losing sleep over the prospect of not finding enough trucks to get the 2012-13 new potato crop to market, said Bill Brewer, executive director of the Portland-based Oregon Potato Commission.
“I haven’t heard of anyone who’s overly concerned,” he said.
In Oregon, where exports are such a big part of the potato deal, the need to get product to the coast in a timely manner is crucial. That’s something else growers aren’t sweating this summer, Brewer said.
“Most guys can get to the ports.”