NEPC panelists look to minimize produce supply chain challenges
Over the past two years, businesses have been facing a string of supply chain challenges, including lack of truck drivers and high gas prices — and those challenges are exacerbated by the perishable nature of the products in the produce and floral industries.
The New England Produce Council held an educational session on supply chain challenges the morning of Aug. 25 at the council's annual Produce, Floral & Food Service Expo, which was held at the Omni Boston Hotel at the Seaport, a new venue.
Rebeckah Freeman Adcock, the International Fresh Produce Association’s vice president of U.S. government relations, moderated the breakfast panel.
While these issues aren’t going away anytime soon, “we’re generally seeing and sensing a little easing — or maybe we’re just getting used to it,” Adcock said, pointing to the resilience of those in the industry.
Panelists — Mark Donley, vice president at ADUSA Procurement; Jonathan Eisen of American Trucking; Dave Patnaude, sales manager at Coast to Coast Produce in Boston; and Joshua Noonan, director of delivered sales at C.H. Robinson Fresh — weighed in on current challenges, changes the industry can look forward to and ways companies can minimize pains in meantime.
As one looming complication, Eisen pointed to AB5, a California law that reclassifies independent contractors as employees, something he said isn’t compatible with the current independent owner-operator model prevalent in trucking. The law recently spurred protests that shut down a key port for California ag in Oakland. He noted that other states are weighing similar laws and the policy could spread to the east. “We will have to see how the implementation goes in California, but it’s a major concern for the trucking side,” he said.
On a positive note, he said challenges throughout the pandemic could result in a more efficient supply change: “The supply chain had a lot of inefficiencies and we figured out ways to work around all of them, but when the volume overwhelmed — all of those little workarounds that we created over the years — it resulted in a great deal of difficulty. Hopefully coming out of this, everybody is finding ways the whole system can operate so much more efficiently.”
Patnaude said the pandemic forced improvements in communication: “Because of limitations in personnel everyone is involved more and each transaction has more meaning for us.” He said the result is a more collaborative effort: “If a truck is early customers are more receptive to take the product because the expense of the product — it’s a different environment as far as the cost of the product and the trip — everything costs more.”
Looking forward, Noonan said technology looks to play a key role in reshaping supply chain communication. “Ten years ago shipping information was sent by fax,” he said, noting that 70 percent is now sent EDI (electronic data interchange). He sees everything moving through apps connecting buyers, sellers and carriers. “Venture capitalists have poured billions of dollars into this industry, and we have big tech — Amazon, Meta, Google — all investing in acquiring companies within the supply chain space.”
Another area where technology is reshaping the supply chain is warehouse automation, where Donley said ADUSA has been focused: “It’s a significant investment, but we’ve started this journey and it’s taking off because labor is a significant concern.” Three years into the process Donley said the company is proposing additional retrofit automation. “We’ve made significant strides and it’s helping us get products to consumers. This is a space that I think we’ll see growth and additional investment in the future.”