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West Coast Port Labor Gridlock Makes Agricultural Exports Suffer

The gridlock at West Coast ports is giving the region's agricultural industry serious heartburn.
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West Coast farmers are reaping the fallout of a dispute they didn’t sow.

The gridlock at West Coast ports — due to a dispute between the port owners and the longshoreman’s union — is giving the region's agricultural industry serious heartburn.

Growers and shippers are losing money on exports they can't ship while their crops sit on the docks and rot. Flooding the domestic market would risk a price crash, and some worry they could lose business permanently if overseas buyers get fed up with spotty shipments of spoiled goods.

“It’s having a tremendous negative impact,” said Al Bates, president of Sun Pacific Shippers and Farming. Right now is peak season for Sun Pacific’s naval oranges, he said, exacerbating the losses.

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“We’ll export up to 60 percent of our fruit in these months,” Bates said. Exports command roughly a 20 percent premium over what he can charge domestic buyers, which translates to $6 million a week or more.

This year, that $6 million has been slashed in half, and Bates is starting to hear that his belated shipments are reaching his Asian buyers in less-than perfect condition. “What we’re finding is there’s more soft fruit… You have more decay issues,” he said. So far, demand from Asian markets has kept prices high because of the scarcity of shipments, but too much marginal or spoiled fruit is a problem.

“We talk to our buyers every day… and they’re as frustrated as we are,” said David Roth, president of Cecelia Packing Corporation. “Some of those containers have been sitting down there for two or three weeks,” he said.

Typically, Roth said it wasn’t unusual for 3 percent to 5 percent of fruit to suffer spoilage by the time it reaches Asia, but the port bottleneck has pushed that to double this year, and producers fear that could grow higher as peak season shipments trickle their way out of the backlogged ports.

“As of last week, the citrus industry had estimated losses in sales of as much $500 million for the season to date,” said Dusty Ference, director of grower services for the trade association California Citrus Mutual. Fruit that would normally sit on a dock for a few days before loading was now languishing for a week and a half or more, he said.

While some growers are taking their chances, others are cutting their losses and trying to push their yield into the U.S. market, a move that brings in revenue in the short term but threatens prices in the long term, Ference said.

“When you figure 25 percent of our production is exported, that’s a lot of fruit to put back in the domestic market,” he said.

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“Fruit generally has to go somewhere, so it’s going to probably flood our markets here,” Roth said.

Citrus is far from the only casualty. California almond cooperative Blue Diamond Growers said the port slowdown impeded what otherwise would have been an unexpected recovery after drought pushed yields down by 12 percent in the last harvest. “With the 2014 crop down double-digits to last year, the 6% decline surprised the industry on the upside. The shipments would have been even stronger if not for containers held up in West Coast ports due to union inactivity,” Blue Diamond said on its Almond Insights blog. Demand from China shot up 130 percent in advance of the Chinese New Year, the cooperative said.

The list goes on. Producers of everything from apples to bales of hay to timber are losing time and money because of the slowdown.

“Our lumber exporter in now having to truck containers to Seattle from Boardman, Ore., instead of putting them on the barge at far less cost for loading in Portland,” Patti Iverson-Summer, president and owner of freight forwarding and customs brokerage firm Global Trading Resources, Inc., said via email. These inland freight costs add an additional $800 to $900 for each container. “That adds up on a low margin product,” she said.

Even these headaches, though, are only forerunners to a bigger problem if the stalemate continues. “The big thing there is they lose contracts because they can’t deliver and then they’re shut out of that market,” said John Martin, founder of transportation consulting firm John C. Martin & Associates.

Previous issues that have hampered the flow of goods around the globe have prompted buyers to look elsewhere, and once that new status quo is established, it tends to stick. Martin said. “It’s a long term structural impact,” he said. “When you see those major supply shifts like that, it’s unlikely you go back.”