Languishing nuts show how the shipping crisis is hurting American farmers

By Sharon Bernstein and Nathan Frandino

ESCALON, California, Dec 9 (Reuters) – Shrink-wrapped boxes of fresh California walnuts stacked nearly to the ceiling at Don Barton’s California packing plant are set to be directed to Europe for baking. parties and to Asia for New Year celebrations.

Instead, newly cleaned and shelled nuts – worth around $10 million – are stuck at its processing plant near Sacramento, thousands of miles from their destinations, as the global crisis of the supply chain compresses the ports.

Transportation and supply chain issues are hurting farmers on the US West Coast, a major global supplier of specialty crops like fruits and nuts popular during holiday season celebrations.

Ships that normally pick up nuts from Barton’s company, Gold River Orchards, skip the port of Oakland where the nuts are typically exported, or show up at odd or unexpected times, making it difficult to get product to the docks.

“We’re currently shipping less than half of what we should be shipping and could be shipping at this time of year, just because there’s no equipment available,” Barton said, standing in the middle of a towering processing machines and pallets loaded with boxes marked for overseas shipment. .

Ships also skip the Northwest Seaport complex in Seattle and Tacoma where hay, apples and beans await export. In the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, freighters wait for weeks for a place in the port, only to suddenly leave, in many cases without picking up the goods to be exported.

Much of the shipping crisis stems from the COVID-19 pandemic. Homebound Americans are brimming with unspent travel and entertainment dollars and government stimulus has splurged on everything from food and fridges to toys and exercise equipment. Import demand has overwhelmed supply chains and prompted container shipping companies to focus on the most profitable routes between China and the Port of Los Angeles, skipping others.

Farmers who have agreed to deliver fruit, nuts and other produce in time for the holidays are breaking their contracts, losing business to overseas growers they say may never return.

At the Port of Oakland, only 679 ships stopped to pick up cargo in the first nine months of 2021, down from 959 the year before, spokeswoman Marilyn Sandifur said, though some of the decline was compensated by additional cargo carried by larger vessels.

“A lot of people rely on high-quality American food products and there’s a demand for them overseas,” Sandifur said. “The challenge is to get them there.”

German importers have struggled to get California inshell walnuts, a popular seasonal snack, to supermarkets in time for Christmas due to six to eight week delays in ship departures, said Jens Borchert of the German importer Mariani from California.

The California walnut industry exported 47% fewer inshell walnuts and 16% fewer shelled walnuts in September and October 2021 compared to the previous year, the California Walnut Board said in a report. Almond industry data shows a 19% decline in exports in the three months ending October 31 compared to the prior year period.

Barton says its exports were down about 75% in October from a year earlier. A key contract, to supply nuts for the festive season to supermarket chains in Sweden, has been canceled after the nuts were held up for weeks awaiting a ship, he said.

ERRATIC SHIPPING TIMES

For Dairy America, a cooperative that is the world’s largest supplier of skim milk powder, shipping costs have risen 30-40% and contracts have been canceled due to irregular shipping schedules, Derik said. Toy, supply chain manager of the Fresno Group.

Last month, the cooperative had to find storage for 18 containers full of powdered milk in Arizona, after numerous schedule changes by a shipping company contracted to transport them from Los Angeles to Colombia. The cooperative will now have to pay late fees on the containers it has rented to transport the milk.

Peter Friedmann, executive director of the Agriculture Transportation Coalition, said its members reported a 22% decline in exports in the first four months of 2021 alone.

The ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, the nation’s busiest port complex, dominated media coverage of supply chain issues. But congestion has made it harder for farmers to export their produce across the country, Friedmann said.

At the ports of Seattle and Tacoma in Washington state, exports are down 11% this year and 20% from the five-year average, said Steve Balaski, acting director of business development for the Northwest Seaport Alliance.

Three maritime services are suspending calls to the Northwestport complex in December, and ships on two other routes will reduce the frequency of stops there, he said.

Ports are the main export points for frozen apples and french fries. They also ship peas, lentils and about 40% of the country’s hay exports.

Shipments to Europe, Latin America and parts of Asia outside of China are particularly affected, he said.

“When they are unable to export, it really affects farmers’ ability to earn money,” Balaski said. (Reporting by Sharon Bernstein and Nathan Frandino in Escalon, California. Additional reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles, Nigel Hunt in London and Karl Plume in Chicago Editing by Caroline Stauffer and Matthew Lewis)

(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2021.