Futureproofing Produce Logistics with Partnerships, Planning
It takes a lot of manpower, machinery and logistical support to get fresh produce from the orchard to the consumer. Especially with the scale of production, storage and processing in Northern California, that’s no simple task. Getting the job done and staying ahead of what could become the next supply chain logjam takes an evolutionary approach rooted in strong relationships, progressive planning and enterprising budgeting.
That’s why the leaders of Grow West Trucking — today making up what was once three local trucking companies — prioritize what they see as necessary parts of futureproofing the business. They provide logistics services for producers and packers of key crops in their region. It’s a business in which change is one of just a few constants, with success often defined on a daily or weekly basis given the just-in-time nature of produce transportation and logistics today.
“The markets are always shifting. It’s continuous for us,” said Grow West Trucking Division Manager Joe Carrasco. “It’s all just-in-time. We do a lot of planning in the offseason for what we think will happen based on our team keeping us in the know. We may meet with customers six times before the season even starts.”
Partners teaming up to meet evolving needs
Grow West recently partnered with Hammer Transport and Clark Trucking Services, Inc., to grow its trucking capabilities. They’re all longtime players in the region’s produce transportation game; Clark began hauling tomatoes for Del Monte in the early 1960s. Today, Grow West Trucking also hauls for Pacific Coast Producers (PCP), a Lodi-based grower-owned cooperative that fulfills private-brand canning fruit and tomato contracts.
Decades later as contracts and output transitioned from tomatoes to other crops — namely peaches and pears — Clark adapted to continue its service to local growers, cold storage facility managers and processors. Now as part of Grow West Trucking, leaders like Operations Manager Mark Kaye are continuing that evolution to be even better partners in performing a critical function.
“There are some standard processes and practices from the past that are inefficient today. Those are things we are always working to change,” said Kaye, former general manager at Clark Trucking Services. “We’re always looking to improve our service and efficiency.”
Why relationships matter in the produce value chain
Accomplishing that goal requires strong relationships and communication with some faces that are familiar to Carrasco, Kaye and others on the Grow West Trucking team. Even though the companies fulfilling stone fruit contracts may change, many of the people who make it happen haven’t. Kaye said he relies on many of the partners with whom he’s worked for years to get information that can contribute to smart planning and budgeting decisions.
“The relationships we’ve forged over the years have certainly helped us know where we’re headed,” he said. “It’s really just communication with our partners in the field; when it comes down to the busy season, we are constantly communicating so we know how much tonnage they’ll be buying in a year. That way, we know what it will take to haul it.”
Grow West Trucking provides logistics throughout the growing season, starting with fertilizer and crop protection product delivery all the way to hauling harvested produce to grading stations, then cold storage or canneries. The timing of different field and orchard operations — especially harvest — is a major variable Carrasco and Kaye consider in planning to ensure the right number of drivers and trucks are available when they’re needed.
Those operations are anything but consistent; in 2023, for example, many operations have been delayed, extending the timeframe for maximum fleet availability to ensure produce reaches its post-harvest destination when it needs to. It’s just one way longstanding relationships and partnerships with growers come in handy.
“This year’s going to be crazy, because a lot of crops got started really late. We may have a short window to get everything done,” Kaye said. “Strategic partnerships are important in situations like this year. We have relationships with growers and in many cases, our drivers know the growers.”
Partners evolving together to get the job done
The partnership between Grow West Trucking and PCP exemplifies the kind of collaboration that’s necessary in such an ever-changing business environment. Michelle Copeland is in frequent contact with Carrasco and Kaye’s team to ensure the right pieces are constantly in place to get produce to the market. It’s part of the PCP pear district manager’s routine, and it helps her maintain the flexibility to react quickly to changing market conditions, something that happens regularly despite her thorough long-term planning.
“We’re a cooperative, so we’re constantly working with our growers to determine how many tons they plan on. Our field department tracks when orchards were planted and when they’ll be harvested or replanted. It’s a continuous moving target, and we always have a five- to 10-year plan in place based on production estimates from our growers’ plans,” Copeland said. “Tonnage numbers are always changing with different commodities. We are always planning for cold storage and daily production requirements. It’s a lot of cogs in the wheel to line up.”
Part of what makes the relationship between Grow West Trucking and PCP so productive is the shared ethic among Carrasco, Kaye and Copeland. They all know planning and budgeting is important, but so is flexibility. Copeland said she knows even her best-laid plans can change. She knows the same is true for the Grow West Trucking team, so she accounts for that in her own planning.
“We have worked together for so many years that if they’re having an issue with not having enough drivers or too many growers have asked for extra loads that weren’t originally scheduled, I am confident that we can still come up with a solution even if it’s not what we originally planned on,” Copeland said. “We’re good at bouncing ideas off one another.”
Futureproofing produce transportation and logistics
Looking ahead, Carrasco anticipates the volume of Northern California produce to stay relatively constant in the next five years, but he expects peach tonnage to displace other crops. He also sees food safety and regulation driving changes in how he and Kaye manage the Grow West Trucking fleet.
Finally, labor constraints will drive new technology so he and all other industry partners in the local produce value chain can do what they do best, and more of it. With all of these trends already underway, Carrasco expects the relationships and planning that are part of every decision and operation will continue to serve Grow West Trucking well.
“We’ll have to have more trucks. But since we know our growers and their needs so well, those partnerships will become even more important as we continue to evolve,” Carrasco said. “We’ll continue asking ourselves what we did well this year and what we can do better next year.”