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According to a report from Mexico News Daily, it could take seven months to repair the Mazatlán-to-Durango highway, where a diesel fuel truck exploded on the night of Jan. 13 atop El Carrizo, one of the new highway’s many towering bridges. This would create eastbound shipping challenges for west Mexico produce growers until the end of the summertime shipping.bridge-MexicoOn the night of Jan. 13, a diesel fuel tanker truck rolled and exploded, causing severe damage to the El Carrizo bridge. Photo courtesy of Mexico News Daily

The $2.2 billion, four-year-old highway, Mexico Highway 40D, is a fast, safe connection between Mexico’s west coast produce production areas and south Texas. Beyond tourists driving to Mazatlán, it is particularly useful to Mexico’s west coast growers; notably those in the major shipping district of Culiacan, Sinaloa, to ship directly to McAllen, TX. For trucks destined for points east and north of McAllen, it is a shorter route than driving northwest up the coast to Nogales.

The exploding diesel tanker burned about 9,000 square feet of the bridge.

The post-fire detour adds eight to twelve hours to reach McAllen from Culiacan, according to Matt Mandel, the chief operating officer of SunFed.

The bridge fire initially did not create too much disruption for shipments to McAllen, according to George Quintero Jr., managing partner of Grower Alliance LLC, which is based in Rio Rico.

Given the new highway, Grower Alliance and many other Nogales distributors are increasingly using McAllen in their distribution plans.

Quintero’s trucks were able to go around the bridge on other routes, he said. The knocked-out bridge mainly impacted Sinaloa. “It is not a big deal for Michoacan, which is beyond” the damaged highway in the direction of McAllen.

“Other shippers in Culiacan will have to go through here” in Nogales “or waste time going around. We won’t be affected” because Grower Alliance was virtually done with wintertime Culiacan production. The firm will receive Culiacan production again this fall. “We do not have a lot of Culiacan-to-McAllen business. Some people do.”

Mandel’s SunFed is headquartered in Rio Rico but has a McAllen distribution facility. He said, “We definitely diverted a couple of trucks” to Nogales shortly after the bridge fire. Now, using the detour, “we are still going to McAllen and it may take longer. But it’s cheaper than coming here and then shipping to customers in Texas.”

Mandel said SunFed has been steadfastly developing a Texas customer base. The company is leasing a warehouse in Weslaco, TX, until a permanent new facility is established.

With the highway challenge, “the last thing we want to do is lose the momentum we worked so hard to create,” Mandel said. He added that the bridge closing, atop electronic log enforcement and high freight rates, is another transportation challenge this year. Having a Texas operation helps overcome transportation problems, he said. “It’s still an advantage to ship any freight through Texas with perishable product. The faster, the better.”

While using railroads is an option for the future, “door-to-door trucking is faster. I don’t see rail taking hold.” But, Mandel concluded, “I’d be the last person to write off change in the industry. But with customers wanting JIT (just in time) deliveries, railroad inefficiencies will be hard to overcome.”

While the rest of the country will be glued to their television sets cheering on team USA in the Winter Olympics, the associates at Tops Friendly Markets are gearing up for their own Olympics, with a twist. Over the next four weeks, associates across Tops’ three-state footprint will be challenging one another to a produce-themed Olympic competition to see will who will bring home the gold.Halo-Bobsled-Store-434

“With the Winter Olympics under way we felt this was a great opportunity to encourage a little healthy competition among our store teams,” said Jeff Cady, director of produce and floral for Tops. “During the winter months especially we know that consumers aren’t naturally thinking about fruits and vegetables. This challenge encourages our associates to remind the community of the importance of getting their five recommended daily servings in a fun and engaging way.”

Over the course of the Tops Produce Olympics store teams will compete in categories such as Curling (with potatoes), The Berry Biathlon, Chilean Cross Country and The Halo Bobsled Event. Teams will earn points for creativity of their produce displays as well as their ability to increase consumer awareness about the importance of eating more fruits and vegetables. Walking away with the gold is the goal of course while medals will also be awarded for bronze and silver and regional awards will be presented as well.

Honeycrisp admirers near and far will have something exciting to look forward to this spring and summer — a longer Honeycrisp season. Washington state-based Stemilt Growers will be expanding its Honeycrisp season through mid-summer with a new brand called Honeyhill.

“Honeyhill is an exciting addition to include in our family of brands as we will be offering one of the most popular apple varieties for a longer timeframe,” said Roger Pepperl, Stemilt marketing director. “We’re choosing the best Honeycrisp apples for Honeyhill boxes, which means retailers can promote fruit with beautiful colors and flavors that taste as if you had just picked them from the tree back in the fall.”Honeyhill-2018-Carton-Mock-up

Stemilt is not allowing just any Honeycrisp apple to be packed under the Honeyhill name. Only high-color Honeycrisp apples will qualify for the Honeyhill brand. The main strain that is producing high-color and high-quality Honeycrisp apples late in the season is Royal, a new sport of Honeycrisp apples that is actually quite different than the rest of the pack.

“The Royal Honeycrisp is a beautiful strain with great color and finish. Its real advantage is that our teams can pick full-colored fruit at the right starch levels in order to store well in our controlled atmosphere rooms. When we pull these apples out at a later date, the starches have converted to sugars with good acides that deliver that amazing fall flavor in the spring and summer months. Honeyhill is a great program to build late-season Honeycrisp sales around,” said Pepperl.

Planted in some of Stemilt’s most pristine orchards throughout Washington state, Stemilt’s field team works to ensure each Royal Honeycrisp can maximize it’s time on the tree. The Royal strains ability to color well allows Stemilt to pick the fruit in an ideal window where the fruit starch levels allow it to be stored for long-term success. Stemilt also utilizes shade cloth and windscreens to further care for its Royal Honeycrisp apples.

Designed in-house by Stemilt’s marketing team, the Honeyhill brand and packaging is available in both a standard and euro carton. The high-graphic visuals play off the unique Honeyhill name, including visually fun images. These standard cartons are a made from a varnished box that will make help create eye-catching displays in produce departments everywhere.

“The packaging was designed to highlight the distinctness of this apple strain,” said Pepperl. “The packaging is bold, fun and stimulating, making it a great building tool for your produce department displays.”

Organic Honeycrisp apples are also available and currently being packed under Stemilt’s Artisan Organics label. “We all know organic is a growing category, so packing Honeycrisp both organically and conventionally will result in high sales returns for the retailer,” said Pepperl. “We’re excited about Honeyhill. The fall spice, the sweet, crisp crunch and the juices of the Royal Honeycrisp will please the many fans of Honeycrisp, and continue to elevate the apple category through this premium, sought-after apple.”

RIO RICO, AZ — A year ago it was low produce prices, but this winter truck transportation is headlining conversation in the Nogales community.

If misery were to love company, clearly Nogales isn’t alone in dealing with a lack of truckers to haul perishable fresh fruits and vegetables. But, however widespread the pain may be, it hurts in Nogales.

“We’ve never seen those kinds of prices,” said Chris Ciruli, a partner in Ciruli Bros. LLC in Rio Rico, AZ.

Jerry Havel, director of sales and marketing for Fresh Farms LLC in Rio Rico, indicated that new transportation prices “will find their level. No one knows where it will settle.” But he said the new electronic logging device regulations “are costing an extra day” when shipping from Nogales to New York. “Instead of four, it’s taking five days. When going to Montreal it’s taking six, not five. That is a problem. We have to change our loading hours. We do all we can on our side not to burn the drivers’ time waiting.”

While efforts to improve the problem are under way, truck rates will inevitably rise because of new ELD inefficiencies.

Havel indicated that transportation within Mexico “is not a problem. It is just outbound” from Nogales that is feeling the great increase in rates.

Nogales produce distributor Omar Losolla noted that there is a 90-day grace period on the new rule commanding that truckers use ELDs. This grace period is to expire March 18.

The ELD law went into effect on Dec. 18, which led to increased truck prices. “It’s only been a month,” Losolla told The Produce News. “But it seems like forever.” Losolla is vice president of sales and marketing for Rio Rico’s GreenPoint Distributing LLC.

Losolla said some truckers were taking advantage of the grace period — especially around the Christmas and new year period — and price gouging around the logging devices even if that technology was not yet installed in their truck. Around New Year’s, truck prices to New York from Nogales reached as high as $10,000 to $11,000 per load, Losolla said. Within two weeks that number fell to $7,500 to $8,500.

Ciruli noted that Christmastime freight costs were equaling product values within a trailer.

As a result, Ciruli said, “people are looking at every option, including rail and pigs.” There is piggyback trailer service out of Phoenix and the port of Tucson offers four-day intermodal service to Chicago. Given ground transportation, that is a net-seven-day service, plus rail service to another city, such as Baltimore or Philadelphia.

Ciruli said a downside of railcar shipping is that there aren’t many customers — outside of terminal market operators — who can handle carload volumes.

Losolla said he feels badly for the trucking companies to be forced to deal with the ELD laws. At the same time, “it’s not the consumers’ fault” that they will ultimately be forced to pay for the high freight rates. But, at least in the short run, in mid-January, prices were “getting back down to normal.”

In mid-January, Losolla hoped that, because of the perishability issue, the ELD law might be waived for perishable produce. He noted that live animal shippers are exempt from ELD laws.

Mervin Sexton, a co-owner of the livestock auction Manhattan Commission Co. in Manhattan, KS, confirmed Feb. 5 that long-haul livestock haulers were so-far exempt from ELD laws. He wasn’t sure if truckers would ever face ELDs for hauling live animals.

(Provided this livestock insight, Chris Ciruli lightly derived a spontaneous plan to “start loading a goat on the back of our trailers” that otherwise haul produce.)

Ciruli said the January truck shortage was daunting because “we are not at the peak weeks for McAllen or Nogales. That is scary.” He added that February and March mark the Mexican produce export volume peak.

Edgar Duarte, a partner in Higueral Produce Inc., noted that truck rates to Los Angeles from Nogales shot from $1,400 at Thanksgiving to as much as $3,000 at Christmas. In Los Angeles, Higueral was competing with Mexican shippers who enter through Tijuana, and who weren’t facing the same rates in reaching destination. “We are eating the differences in freight. We usually make up the difference in freight, but when you compete with Tijuana, the margins are really, really low.”

peapodPeapod, Ahold Delhaize's online grocery business in the U.S., has expanded its popular meal kit line to include six new recipes. Peapod began offering meal kits in 2014 as one of the first retailers to combine the convenience of meal kits with online grocery delivery. The expansion comes as the brand is seeing a 104 percent increase in new customer purchases year over year, with the meal kits receiving an average rating of 4.4 out of five stars.

Each kit contains pre-measured, pre-cut and pre-washed fresh ingredients for a home-cooked meal without all of the prep time. All of the kits are affordably priced — many are less than $5 per serving — and range from two to six servings. Peapod's delivery model also allows it to use significantly less packaging compared to other meal kit providers, eliminating ice packs or other insulation.

"We know that our customers enjoy a home-cooked meal but also value shortcuts to help simplify the cooking process," said Spencer Baird, Peapod senior vice president of merchandising. "In fact, according to a recent survey we conducted, ready-to-serve and cook mixes are the most valued shortcut among home cooks with nearly one-third of adults planning to purchase a meal kit in 2018. By shopping on Peapod, you can complete your weekly grocery shop with all of the essentials and add in a meal kit for a busy weekday night."