Harvesting Success This Produce Season

A carrier with a strong reputation, the latest technology and equipment, and the ability to scale will be the best partner to handle both the season’s opportunities and challenges.

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As the weather heats up, so does consumer purchasing of perishable, refrigerated and frozen goods. Beginning in March and ending in May, the spring season heralds the start of produce season, offering plenty of recipes to make for that outdoor barbecue or gathering. The beginning of produce season comes the need for increased transportation solutions, like refrigerated trucking, to get goods in the hands of consumers.

In 2023, the U.S. fruits and vegetables market reached a value of $66.7 billion.

Experts expect that number to surpass $100 billion by 2031. With the market value for these goods so high, it highlights the need for temperature-controlled solutions to deliver goods efficiently and effectively.

So, how do shippers best engage with such a large, fast-moving market?

The impact of produce season

Produce season often marks the end of the "quiet season" for freight with increased demand for fruits and vegetables such as watermelon, tomatoes, corn and strawberries.

Spot rates and capacity for produce will depend on location. Some U.S. markets won't be affected much, if at all, during this produce season, and others will be heavily impacted by demand. Where a crop is grown or harvested determines how it will affect the market. For example, Florida is often a higher-capacity market than most during peak season due to its abundance of fruit and vegetable crops, as well as florals, during peak holidays like Mother’s Day.

With the rise of predictive artificial intelligence (AI), produce shippers can better forecast which crops might be in abundance or lacking based on the growing season and predict which will be most in demand depending on regional purchasing habits.

One advantage of the produce season is that, with the warmer weather, shippers no longer worry about winter storms and the subsequent unpredictability of the cooler seasons that displace many trucks. 

Preparing for produce season

Shippers should start preparing for produce season in advance to ensure they have the solutions needed to get goods from Point A to Point B efficiently. Shipping temperature-controlled freight is a specific form of transport, as it requires expertise and best-in-class solutions to maintain consistent temperatures.

There are federal regulations and guidelines surrounding produce temperatures during transportation to maintain quality and safety, of which shippers should be aware, including the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act, which prioritizes food safety. Other guidelines and resources include the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), which advises refrigerated food freight should be stored and shipped at temperatures no higher than 40°F. In addition, any refrigerated trailer needs to be food-grade safe, clean and dry before arriving to be loaded.

Beyond these guidelines, however, the standard with which refrigerated trucks are held is determined by individual shippers. If a truck arrives and the shipper determines it does not meet their standards, it will be rejected. Scenarios like these can damage a carrier's reputation in addition to consuming both parties’ time and money. They will need to recover the load and either wait for the truck to be fixed for another inspection or arrange for a new, possibly more expensive, truck to be dispatched.

Once a truck is ready for loading, preparing a refrigerated shipment can be time-consuming. Depending on the type of commodity, there are many additional logistics to consider when shipping produce. For instance, when shipping corn, ice must be laid on top of and around the shipment to maintain its optimal temperature during shipment. This requires an additional stop for the loaded truck to receive the ice before proceeding.

Another example is the shipment of produce like bananas, tomatoes, cantaloupe and avocados. These crops produce ethylene, a gas that causes produce to ripen faster. Because of this, these crops are not often shipped with other types of produce, such as lettuce, which would be affected by the ethylene and overripened or spoiled before reaching their destination. The exception might be if a grocery chain is moving local shipments for the day from a nearby warehouse, limiting overall exposure time.

Choosing a carrier for produce season

A successful produce season relies on flexibility, scale and attention to often nuanced details. Finding the right carrier to meet your temperature-controlled shipping needs is essential.

First, make sure you find a carrier with capabilities across the lower 48 states and cross-border. Even a regional operation will want to work with a carrier that can scale alongside the growing business. Produce is a national marketplace need. Given the amount of produce transported across the U.S./Mexico border (2022 produce imports are estimated at $18.7 billion), you'll also want to ensure they have strong cross-border capabilities and the cross-dock facilities to support them.

Beyond a carrier's footprint, check fleet capabilities. Do they have the drivers and trucks to meet your shipping needs? Also, check that they're operating with top-of-the-line, well-maintained equipment. The truth is that 7-15% of food waste occurs during transport. Don't let that result from a carrier's lack of proper equipment.

Due to the time-sensitive nature of produce, ask about a carrier's transportation management system (TMS) and trailer tracking capabilities. Can you monitor the status of your shipment in real time? In an unforeseen event, such as bad weather, an accident or unexpected road closures, you'll want a team that communicates the issue immediately and works with you to develop an alternate solution to ensure delivery goals.

Take the right steps this produce season

As we enter produce season, there are many logistics to consider, especially when accounting for temperature-controlled shipments. To achieve success, shippers need to work with carriers who make those logistics feel easy. A carrier with a strong reputation, the latest technology and equipment, and the ability to scale will be the best partner to handle both the season’s opportunities and challenges.