Growers (and trucks) migrate south for the winter


Dean Croke  on  December 8, 2021, 2:46 pm

Leading vegetable producer, Church Brothers Farms, supply the market with salads year round. To make all of this happen, they operate in Salinas and the San Juan Valley of California for the spring and summer season and in Yuma, Arizona, and California’s Imperial Valley for the winter season from November to April. 

Twice a year they shift their entire operations between the two locations — involving more than 200 people and 60 flatbed trucks — with each move taking only 72 hours. 

“We typically start breaking down on a Wednesday night and are up and running by Sunday,” according to a company statement.

Other major lettuce producers make similar moves, meaning the region around Yuma, Arizona accounts for 90% of our leafy greens in the winter — and earning the name, “Winter Salad Bowl.”

From November to March, Yuma is the epicenter of U.S. production of salad greens and is also Arizona’s largest crop producer. Located near the borders of Arizona, California and Mexico, Yuma is a natural transportation hub. It has over 40 million consumers within a one-day truck haul via Interstate 8 or US 95, both of which run directly through Yuma County. 

The region is also home to nine salad processing plants and 23 cooling facilities that produce bagged lettuce and salad mixes. During peak production months, each of those plants process more than two million pounds of lettuce daily, which is the equivalent of roughly 400 refrigerated truckloads per day. 

Because of this, produce carriers make a similar move. Produce facilities in southern latitudes come online — including Florida, which also starts its produce season in December — offering more consistent loadings in the warmer regions.

Why this year is different

Salinas growers have seen national average flatbed spot rates (to all destinations) not only increase by $0.35/mile compared to this time last year. Rates have also increased by $0.65/mile year-over-year to $2.97/mile on the 582-mile haul from Salinas to Yuma.

Outbound reefer spot rates from the Imperial Valley are also heating up as salad production begins in the region. This week the average reefer spot rate for outbound loads is around $3.68/mile, up $0.05/mile in just three weeks

On major lanes including Dallas, rates are now up almost $0.75/mile since October. Loads north to Seattle are also up by the same amount compared to this time last year, averaging $3.50/mile this week. Loads 2,700-miles east to Hunts Point, NY, are up $0.35/mile since last year to an average of $3.45/mile. 

For carriers on the West Coast and in the Southwest Region, the Imperial Valley is a 185-mile deadhead from Phoenix and 120-miles from San Diego. This is  mileage that needs to be factored into the outbound load rate. 

Brokers and shippers could find this season more challenging than most for outbound loads from the Winter Salad Bowl, given the stiff competition for reefer capacity closer to Los Angeles. Carriers are finding average outbound reefer rates from Los Angeles almost $0.26/mile higher than Yuma, AZ this week. And on the regional lane from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, reefer rates are now consistently over $6.00/mile — that’s an increase of $1.57/mile compared to this time last year.

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