Diesel costs make rail more alluring to California melon growers

06/02/2011 01:20:00 PM
Dan Gailbraith

With California diesel fuel prices above $4 a gallon, melon grower-shippers are researching freight options to help their customers find the most cost-efficient transportation methods.

“At these prices, the cost of freight is higher than the cost of the fruit,” said Brian Wright, salesman at Delmar Farms, Westley, Calif.

The greatest concern, he said, was for East Coast retailers.

At Couture Farms, Huron, Calif., customers in the Midwest were not being overlooked, said co-owner Steve Couture. The Midwest has been a strong market for Couture Farms’ mixed and specialty melons, he said, and the high diesel prices could help the region’s locally grown athena cantaloupes capture more shelf space.

“Freight costs are going to be very sobering this summer,” Couture said.

Dedicated trains such as the Railex operation out of Delano, Calif., have changed the trucking industry, said Jim Malanca, vice president of sales and marketing at Westside Produce Co., Firebaugh, Calif.

“They’re definitely a factor in the industry and becoming more so all the time,” he said. “We’re telling our customers that rail shipments are not only a viable solution, but frankly a necessary one.”

Melon customers of Crown Jewels Marketing LLC, Fresno, Calif., have used rail sparingly, said Atomic Torosian, managing partner.

“We obviously have to take a stronger look at rail this year,” he said.

Dedicated trains are not the only rail option. More and more customers are electing to use the railroads’ piggy-back service, which puts refrigerated trailers on flat bed rail cars for long-haul shipping, said Rodney VanBebber, sales manager for Pappas & Co., Mendota, Calif.

Other customers — especially East Coast-based retailers — favor the dedicated trains.

“Railex seems to be filling a niche for many of our eastern customers,” he said.



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