The agriculture supply chain is a very interesting and challenging world in and of itself. The products being moved are constantly changing due to crop growing seasons and consumer demand. There is also the ups and downs of the markets that purchase these products.
As a wheat farmer in central Washington for 20 years, I experienced firsthand the challenges that farmers face moving the product to market. Transportation was always a “wild card,” almost as much as the weather! Moving from the farming side to the transportation/freight forwarding side, I found that it was very helpful to have the background I did and understand those challenges. As a freight forwarder my goal has always been to treat each shipment as if it came from my farm and I need to move it efficiently and timely.
The challenges brought on during Covid were mostly challenges that we met at the port and with the carriers. Agriculture and transportation were both deemed essential sectors and continued to function with a few new rules and requirements. Many of these new procedures made the truck loading and unloading a bit more efficient. However, working with the carriers was a different story. As they transitioned to working from home, we saw very distinct delays in response time as well as turn around time in bookings and shipping documents. It went from a 24-hour period to a 2-4 day turn around time.
The next issues we encountered came with the cancelling of vessels sailing from China. China shut down their factories and ocean carriers implemented many blank sailings at a time when agriculture exports were high. As vessels were cancelled our bookings were too. These bookings had real cargo ready to ship. The schedules were completely skewed and customers who had loading/shipping schedules to follow were left with no place to take their cargo while awaiting the next available vessel. Vessel space was also made very tight as capacity was largely reduced. Empty containers became a problem as well–import cargo was reduced and that in turn reduced the number of available empty containers to load. We found ourselves working very closely with the carriers on strategies to reposition empty containers into Seattle. At the same time we were hit with this reality, the ports changed their schedule to only being open 4 days per week. Often, the the time allotted to receive a vessel was reduced as the port was very full of cargo awaiting to be loaded on a vessel.
Our trucking partners encountered long wait times at the port. Because they traveled from Eastern Washington they would end up with the added expense of spending the night as they were not able to complete the trip over the mountain and in-gate at the port in time. The receiving windows for cargo entering the port were changed often due to vessel delays. This situation is so very difficult because when scheduling a trucking move you need to have specific dates and times. When the schedule is a moving target, it makes it literally impossible to plan efficiently. To add insult to injury, if you were not able to get your containers in for the intended vessel, our customer would have to find somewhere to store the loaded container. The carrier as well as the chassis owner would then charge you additional per day charges for use of their equipment. We saw costs go up exponentially. Especially if you missed a vessel and the next week happened to be a vessel skip week, your container could potentially be out for two weeks. All these delays added up to additional costs to the shipper. It was really challenging to continually deliver bad news to our customers, and yet all these issues were out of our control.
We have now transitioned back into the office and have found that we are working around a new normal. We have seen a few carriers return to their offices and we are now seeing a more ordinary response time on customer service requests.
We continue to work hard to find solutions for our customers’ transportation needs. It is so important to maintain a fluid agriculture supply chain and to keep these products moving to market. It has a direct effect on the farms and ranches in Washington as well as the many jobs that are created that are linked to the industry, from transportation to production and sales and finally to the consumer.