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Challenges old and new affect Dallas business

Even with all its advantages, there is no shortage of issues and obstacles facing the DFW fresh produce industry.

As always, fresh produce growers are at the mercy of the weather, for one. Last year, there was plenty of impact from rain, cold snaps, and glancing blows from hurricanes. Weather fronts heading north from Mexico and west from Florida caused delays and supply issues.

According to Steve Ford, managing member at Dallas Direct Distributing, LLC in nearby Crandall, TX, weather is the most critical issue facing the Texas fresh produce industry, at least from a grower’s perspective.

From his vantage point as a distributor and merchant, size matters: “generally the Texas industry overall has shrunk,” Ford said. Though some businesses grew, there are fewer, and smaller growers continue to struggle.

Part of the struggle is due to water restrictions, Ford notes. The issue has died down a bit from several years ago, he says, thanks to ample rainfall that has brought the water level back up.

Another obstacle is pricing, due to short supply.

Labor and food safety
The fresh produce industry also has to contend with the perennial labor shortage.

“With the government cracking down on immigration and foreign labor,” Ford points out, growers have been forced to take what he calls “a desperate route” through the federal government’s cumbersome programs to get workers.

“Sometimes they don’t get the labor they need,” Ford said, “which affects getting crops out. It costs a whole lot more for labor than it used to.”

Food safety, of course, is another challenge but most suppliers believe they have the proper protocols in place to prevent serious problems.

Andy Nguyen, president of Quality Produce Distributing, LLC in Grand Prairie, TX, imports produce from South America and notes that if there’s an issue, his suppliers call him and solve the problem right away.

Ford says growers and suppliers are all much more up to date on food safety. “They’re crossing their T’s and dotting their I’s and making themselves way more conscious than they were 10 or 15 years ago. They’re all striving to be more food safety- and traceability-conscious,” he said.

Transportation woes
The trucking situation continues to cause concern as well, though there have been both wins and losses associated with perishables.

Nguyen believes that while electronic logging device (ELD) regulations are a good safety measure—especially when it comes to preventing truck drivers from going without sleep for extended periods of time—the mandate did affect the availability and hours of drivers.

Ford agrees that there don’t appear to be as many qualified truck drivers as there used to be.

He cites the installation of ELDs as causing delays in delivery, forcing shippers “to spend a lot more time on the load than they used to.” He also sees fuel costs as contributing to higher rates.

Ma believes the shortage of truckers is the most critical issue facing Lone Star suppliers and distributors. “The produce industry in Texas is growing yearly due to newcomers. It’s difficult to find good, reputable trucking companies to handle incoming product,” he said.

Nguyen disagrees, and sees the Texas produce industry as particularly robust compared to other states and doesn’t define any current issues as critical.

If there are difficulties with supply levels of state-grown crops like fruit, for example, the industry has imports from Mexico to fall back on—especially with ample availability of perennial favorites like pineapples, mangoes, and avocados.

This is an excerpt from the most recent Produce Blueprints quarterly journal. Click here to read the full version.