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Florida farmers competing for drivers, trucks to get food to consumers

In this March 28, 2020, photo, tomatoes sit on the vine ready to pick in a DiMare field in Homestead. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky) (Lynne Sladky, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – While global supply chain issues are reportedly easing, Florida farmers told lawmakers this week that perishable items with short shelf lives continue to struggle in being moved from fields to markets.

During a meeting of the Senate Agriculture Committee, growers said the industry faces transportation and labor shortages in getting products out of the ground and to market. They also face increased prices and delays for materials -- such as seeds, fertilizers and chemicals -- needed to grow crops.

“There’s got to be some type of prioritization that can happen in the supply chain,” said Tori Rumenik, commodity services and supply chain manager for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association. “I’m just going to lay it bare. I think that getting ag inputs to producers and food to consumers is more important than moving televisions and Christmas gifts. That’s just my opinion. But we’re all in competition for the same drivers and trucks.”

Rumenik said what used to take two days to move products is now taking weeks and, for some, months. As an example, Rumenik said a grower had to scramble to find domestic markets for his grapefruit after being unable in about 40 phone calls to shippers to secure needed containers to meet overseas sales, something she said typically requires a single call.

Suggestions for easing conditions included lowering the age and hours of operations for commercial truck drivers on interstates as a way to entice more workers into that part of the industry, limiting the ability of shippers to depart Florida ports with empty containers, encouraging consumers to buy domestic products and increasing transportation weight limits for agricultural products.

“If we could even just in the state of Florida increase the weight limit by 10,000 pounds that would help because then one driver could take a full truck, not a full weight limit,” said Brittany Lee, executive director of the Florida Blueberry Growers Association and vice president of Florida Blue Farms outside Gainesville. “And even if it was only on state roads, that’s something that your (Senate) committee could help do. That would alleviate some of the issues because then that driver is more effective. He’s going at 100%, not at 80% or 75% of his personal capacities.”

Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, said lawmakers need to look at the weight and age limits, and potentially pesticide and fertilizer costs, as they approach the 2022 legislative session, which begins Jan. 11.

“We’ve got to do everything we can to support this industry,” Perry said.

The challenges add to increasing costs for farmers, who for years have struggled to find workers and faced competition from cheaper imports from Mexico and other countries.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Wednesday said the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach -- which have been seen as the epicenter of the supply chain bottleneck -- have delayed implementation of a $100-per-day fee for containers left lingering on docks as the amount of unmoved cargo had decreased 37% since Oct. 25.

“The average time a container sits on the dock ... is on track to be back down to where it was when the president took office in January and lower than it was in November of last year,” Psaki told reporters. “This means we’re getting goods faster to delivery trucks faster, to shelves faster, (and) of course to people’s homes.”


About the Author:

Jim is a Capitol reporter for the News Service of Florida, providing coverage on issues ranging from transportation and the environment to Legislative and Cabinet politics.