Truck shortage stymies local onion industry

By Pat Caldwell
The Enterprise
ONTARIO – A new federal rule, a booming economy and an aging workforce have conspired to create a shortage of trucks for local onion shippers.
Fewer trucks means higher shipping rates which translates into higher prices for consumers.
“We are not able to ship the volume we’d like to currently and it has been that way for a couple of months,” said Grant Kitamura, general manager of Baker-Murakami Produce, a major onion shipping firm in Ontario.
Kitamura said his industry usually encounters some type of truck shortage during the year, especially in December.
“We have times, like when we are competing against Christmas trees, but then they break free. But we haven’t seen it breaking free this year,” said Kitamura.
Three things are at the heart of the shortage, according to onion and shipping industry officials.
A new federal rule, implemented in December, requires truckers to use electronic log books – called ELDs – rather than the old paper system. The ELD is attached to a commercial truck’s engine to record driving hours. The amount of time a trucker is on the road is regulated by federal law. In a 24-hour period, for example, truckers are limited to 11 hours behind the wheel and must be off duty 10 consecutive hours.
Kitamura said the electronic log books are the biggest factor in the shortage. Often in the past a truck driver did not record his or her waiting time while their truck was loaded with produce when using a paper log.
Now that isn’t the case, said Kitamura.
“It is computerized so they log in on a satellite, so all the time loading and unloading counts as driving time and limits their time on the road,” said Kitamura.
Scott Masingill, the western region sales director for Prime Inc., a large Missouri trucking firm, said there is a subtle but distinctive difference between paper and electronic logs.
“In essence, a driver on a paper log, he logs miles. When he is on electronic, he logs hours,” said Masingill.
That is key because loading time for fresh produce varies widely, said Masingill.
“So, the driver has compensated for the inconstancies in the loading time by creatively logging in their hours. Therefore, they haven’t lost any of their productivity or income due to those delays,” said Masingill.
The hours truckers can spend on the road remains the same, but how they record those hours has changed.
“Nothing has changed except you got to play by the rules. You can’t cheat,” said Masingill.
The electronic logbook rule was created to promote trucker and motorist safety and Masingill said it works for his company.
“Now they’ve learned how to manage these electronic logs and our accident ratio is less,” said Masingill.
A second factor is with the economy doing so well fewer people are electing to become truck drivers. Also, many of the older truck drivers are retiring or otherwise leaving the business.
Masingill said the current truck shortage is surprising.
“It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen. The last quarter (of the year) is always a huge quarter for the trucking business. Normally the first quarter business softens dramatically but it has actually gotten tighter,” said Masingill.
The nature of the work force behind the wheel is changing, too.
“The age of the average truck driver in the last 10 years has gone from 42 to 50. That means nobody young is coming into the pool to drive trucks,” said Masingill.
That’s because, said Masingill, the American economy is going strong, which means plenty of other jobs that pay the same or better than driving a semi.
Tiffany Cruickshank, transportation manager for Snake River Produce Co. in Nyssa said the new log rule was especially hard for veteran truckers.
“The older generation of drivers don’t want to deal with it so they are retiring,” said Cruickshank.
Cruickshank said her firm has experienced a shortage of trucks for several months.
“Since December we have seen more difficulties. Couple all of that with decreased rail availability and there is a massive truck shortage in our area,” said Cruickshank.
The rail stock shortage compounds the lack of trucks, said Cruickshank.
“Now all that volume that went on rail needs to go on trucks,” said Cruickshank.
And, she said, the situation might get worse before it gets better.
“A lot of these factors, drivers aging out of the system, the e-log, are not going to go away,” said Cruickshank. “It has a potential to be a long-term chronic problem.”
Have a news tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected] or 541-473-3377.