It’s early in the North American produce season yet demand for reefer capacity is already extremely tight in many parts of the United States, particularly along the southern border. Produce truck rates are up by at least 70 percent compared with last year, which makes it a good time to be in refrigerated trucking. This year’s produce season isn’t without its challenges, however.
We recently spoke with Matt Heroux, founder and president of Phoenix-based Fresh Freight, which specializes in refrigerated capacity and freight brokerage. In our conversation with Matt, he spoke about what’s been happening on the ground in U.S. produce markets over the last year and what’s likely to be most challenging about this year’s produce season.
Matt started working in the transportation industry while he was still in high school. He went on to study logistics and supply chain management in college, and then spent two decades working in various roles in transportation. Matt and his wife started Fresh Freight in 2016 with $20,000 pulled out of Matt’s savings account. Today Fresh Freight provides refrigerated truck capacity and freight brokerage services to produce distributors, grocery retailers, food service companies and food manufacturers. According to Matt, the company will record approximately $40 million in sales this year.
“We’re an asset plus model,” said Matt. “We’re a 20 truck fleet with all new, premium equipment. We have a really strong fleet program and we’re set up to scale to a much higher level, which we’re just starting to do now.”
According to Matt, the initial challenge with the pandemic was driver safety. He and his team were worried about drivers contracting COVID-19 while out on the road. Matt said coming up with a game plan for notifying shippers and receivers about possible exposure was a huge challenge, but it’s something that the company was able to do internally. Luckily, none of Fresh Freight’s drivers have contracted COVID-19. However, there were other issues to deal with, as well.
“When COVID first happened, we had about eight weeks of load inventory that got canceled,” Matt said. “So we had eight weeks when we didn’t have much freight going and then when it started to pick back up, whole new sets of challenges were out there. We weren’t prepared for the spike in demand that came. We haven’t furloughed a single person or laid off any staff. Thankfully we did that, because having full staff for the rebound was critical to our being able to execute. Now we’re dealing with such volatility in freight rates and capacity. That’s a whole different challenge that we’re working on. We’re adapting. Our freight network has changed, our lanes have changed, our relationships have changed in some instances. Some of our customer contacts were laid off during the pandemic and didn’t come back. We lost many years of relationships. It was a rough go.”
When we spoke with Matt, we asked him what he thinks will end up being the biggest challenge of the 2021 produce season, even though it’s just begun. Matt quickly identified the farm labor shortage as potentially having the most significant impact on this year’s produce season. He sees the farm labor shortage affecting every segment of the supply chain.
“Right now, there’s just such a farm labor deficit that is impacting loading times and transit schedules,” Matt shared. “It’s also putting a lot of stress on the supply chain on all levels. When the driver is waiting, that potentially delays the order and then the truck isn’t going to make the delivery time as a result of the delays. Product availability can be a problem. It’s having a big impact on our organization, our network and our customers’ networks. If at the end of the day, a certain chain restaurant doesn’t get their certain item, it’s a big problem. Farm labor is going to continue to be a big problem and it’s already impacting freight rates.”
To learn more about Fresh Freight, visit https://freshfreight.com.
To find out how to make this year’s produce season a fruitful one, check out Four Things To Keep in Mind During This Year’s Produce Season. To download the Trucker Tools mobile app, visit https://www.truckertools.com/carriers.