The tentative settlement announced late Friday in the talks between port workers and shipping companies at California seaports may mean that Valley produce can once again get moving to customers in Europe and Asia.
Even with that hopeful development, one outcome is clear as a result of the long stalemate: Valley growers started looking for other ways to move their fruit and nuts. Among them were using smaller ships and other ports to get products overseas.
Citrus growers, who are at the peak of their harvest and who have historically shipped about 25% of their crop to foreign markets, were hard hit by the stalled labor negotiations.
While other options were being tried, however, they were not a good replacement for moving products through the main ports. Valley produce shippers say that while they were thankful to get some fruit and nuts onboard, the volume fell far short of the normal flow through the ports in Oakland, Los Angeles and Long Beach.
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“We are only shipping about 25% of what we should normally be doing right now,” said David Roth, president of Cecelia Packing in Orange Cove. “And we are lucky we are getting that much out.”
Roth credited the exporters he deals with for finding room on ships. Others citrus packers and shippers have used smaller ships that can only accommodate fruit by the pallet instead of the normal steel containers.
Kevin Severns, general manager of the Orange Cove-Sanger Citrus Association, said his company packs fruit for Sunkist Growers. The association arranged to put fruit on smaller-sized charter vessels rather than container ships to be shipped overseas.
Dusty Ference, director of grower services for California Citrus Mutual in Exeter, said some growers paidto ship their products through the Port of Houston Authority. A port official estimated the number of shipments out of Houston jumped 30% compared to last year.
Nut growers and processors also were looking at sending their crop to Houston. Iliana Jones, export logistics manager at Poindexter Nut Co. in Selma, said the company considered it as the slowdown continued
“We have several containers that have been sitting on our yard or in a storage yard for nearly two months, waiting for a vessel,” Jones said. “And every day it is money we are losing.”
Poindexter normally ships out of the Port of Oakland to countries that include China, Japan, Turkey and India.
Jones added that while nut producers don’t have a perishable crop like citrus, they do have customers who run out of nuts and want more. Poindexter was not able to provide accurate shipping dates because of the port problems.
Some citrus growers already made tough decisions about their seasons. Several growers and packers slowed down their harvests until the ports resume normal operations. The slowdown means less work for field and packing house workers.
At Cecilia Packing in Orange Cove, workers’ hours were cut by about 15%.
“There are some packing houses that are only working three or four days a week,” Roth said. “This is absolutely having a trickle-down effect, and it is costing the industry millions.”
It is unknown how much citrus farmers have lost in sales so far this year. But the industry exported approximately 28 million cartons of navel oranges in 2012-13 with an estimated value of $385 million.