6. On the hove - transportation of fresh produce

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Transportation is often the most costly factor in the marketing channel, and for airfreighted export crops the cost of transportation may exceed the cost of production. The method of transportation for fresh fruit and vegetables is determined by distance, perishability and the value of the product. Whatever the method used, the principles of transport are the same:

6.1. Handling and moving short distances

Marketing and physical distribution of fresh produce inherently means moving the produce. The commodities are handled, either manually or mechanically, many times from harvest and through the distribution process before the consumer buys and prepares them to eat.

Handling operations are seldom given much thought by the individuals directly involved in moving the process, particularly when the produce is only moved short distances. Figure 6.1 (see Figure 6.1. Handling steps during fresh produce marketing) gives an indication of the number of handling steps that will probably be endured by the produce. Notice that most of them are movements over very short distances and most probably by direct manual handling. These short moves are usually highly repetitive operations and unless the personnel concerned are properly trained and motivated then the physical handling is likely to be very bad leading to produce injury, spoilage and high losses (Witness the loading of inter-island vessels with fresh produce!).

Figure 6.2 (see Figure 6.2. Equipment for moving fresh produce short distances) shows some useful equipment for moving produce short distances which would not only make the job much easier for the workers, it would also speed up operations and reduce physical injury to the produce at the same time.

Roller-conveyors, be they motorised or gravity fed are of great assistance in the packing house for moving boxed produce but are equally useful for loading and unloading of pickups, trucks and stores. Hand-trucks can carry up to six or more crates of produce, are very manoeuvrable light and durable, and do not cost a lot of money. Hand-carts with the front wheels steered by the tow-bar can carry a lot more produce but need to be used on more level ground. Pallet-trucks are in everyday use in the Eastern Caribbean but are not yet used with any regularity for fresh produce handling and movement, probably because packaging has yet to be sufficiently standardized to benefit from pallet operations.

6.2. Handling and stowage during transportation

The factors which govern packaging for transportation have already been covered in Section 4. Dropping of packages during loading and unloading is a frequent cause of damage to the produce and to the package, but can be minimised by:

The method of stowage of the produce in the transport vehicle will depend on the pack, the commodity and the type and size of the vehicle but should always be carefully planned and managed to minimise both physical and environmental damage. The following are some useful guidelines:

6.3. Road transportation

For domestic transportation the use of road vehicles offers substantial advantages of convenience, availability, flexibility permitting door-to-door delivery, and reasonable cost of transport. The use of road transportation for fresh produce is increasing and likely to increase in countries all over the world. Produce may be transported by pick-up, enclosed truck, open truck or refrigerated vehicle.

  1. Enclosed vehicle - these are only suitable for short journeys, unless provided with a cooling system, since the produce inside heats up rapidly. However, they protect the produce from pilferage and physical injury, and are often used for urban retail delivery.
  2. Open vehicle - pick-ups and open trucks are the commonest type of road transport. They are often fitted, before or after purchase, with frames to ease stacking and covering. Natural ventilation is usually sufficient to prevent overheating of produce over relatively short journeys and the most versatile types have a fixed roof and tarpaulin drapes which can be pulled along the sides and back to allow access for loading and unloading at any point. These loose awnings are not in contact with the produce and so allow for ventilation systems on these types of vehicles are unnecessary for short journeys, but when transit time are more than a few hours, adjustable louvres and air-scoops may be needed.
  3. Refrigerated vehicle - some highly perishable products may justify the use of refrigerated vehicles. Ice is not generally used to refrigerated trucks because of weight and corrosion constraints and for most refrigerated vehicles a mechanical system is used. Truck-based mechanical refrigeration systems vary in their cooling capacity. Most are only suitable for maintaining the temperature of produce which has been pre-cooled by other means, and they possess fairly weak air-circulation fans sufficient only to allow refrigeration of air heated up by low respiration of the cool produce. Some form of ventilation may be necessary on longer journeys to prevent oxygen depletion and carbon dioxide accumulation.

A few refrigerated vehicle types, usually reefer containers mounted on the back of flatbed trucks, are capable of rapid forced-draught cooling of warm produce, but these are generally an exception because of their expense.

Figure 6.3. Transport needs good management and supervision

There is often a tendency to use the relatively low capacity refrigerated trucks as the precooling system for export produce. The trucks were not designed as pre-coolers and the results are not satisfactory. In other instances, these same trucks may be used as mobile refrigerators to be installed for days or weeks at a time, as a form of refrigerated store. Again the results are far from satisfactory and spoilage levels are very high. In addition, use of the vehicles in this way is a waste of a very expensive transport vehicle.

6.4. Sea transport

6.4.1. Regional Sea Transport - The Inter-Island Vessels

The inter-island trade in fresh produce utilizes a range of small vessels of wooden or steel construction which are independently owned and operated and focus almost exclusively on servicing the transport needs of the trade. The vessels all rely on engines for propulsion, but the wooden sloops regularly use their sails to stabilize and propell them. The wooden sloops are generally newer (ten years old or less) and carry only about 35 to 40 tonnes of cargo. The steel vessels by comparison are much older and most were bought cheaply and fairly recently second-hand from Europe where they were considered too old or expensive for continued service. Many of the steel vessels are 50 years or older and carry 60 to 100 or more tonnes of cargo.

FIGURE 6.4. INTER-ISLAND TRANSPORT OF FRESH PRODUCE

Some of the larger steel vessels, such as the 'Stella SII' and the 'Louise Kingcraft', carry other types of cargo on a regular or opportunistic schedule between their regular fortnightly huckster route. Several of the small wooden sloops operating out of Dominica also double as fishing boats - fresh produce from Dominica is off-loaded in Antigua then the vessel will fish the waters in the Leewards and sell their catch at the weekend market in Antigua before returning to Dominica for more fresh produce.

All of the rest of the inter-island vessels concentrate solely on the fresh produce trade, but it should be noted that the return journey with dry goods and other consumables ranging from snack foods from Trinidad or cylinders of LPG gas and spare parts etc., is equally important to both the hucksters and traffickers in terms of cargo volume and probably more important in many cases in terms of profits.

Ship

Early in 1987, a Consultant Marine Engineer with the FAO Inter-Island Trade Project (PFL/RLA/001/PFL) conducted a survey of, most of the vessels involved in the inter-island trade in fresh produce at that time. His conclusions may be summarized as follows:

  1. General condition - The condition of most of the vessels themselves was found to be reasonably good. Only the 'Bigdin' was found totally unsatisfactory, but then it was built in 1898 and should have been scrapped a long time ago. Many of the vessels regularly experienced engine breakdowns for lack of parts or occasionally lack of maintenance.
  2. Fitness for fresh produce - Not one single vessel of either steel or wooden construction was found to be appropriate for fresh produce transportation because of:

The FAO Consultant recommended various inexpensive and practical improvements for the vessels and these were presented to the captains and owners for their guidance. The FAO project offered to financially assist with fitting of one or two demonstration vessels with the prescribed improvements, but met with no response and to date none of the vessels has been improved at the owner's or captain's initiative. The improvements recommended were:

  1. Improved ventilation - by fitting "cowl-type" ventilators as shown in Figure 6.5. (see Figure 6.5. "Cowl-type" ventilators for inter-island vessels), below. Most of the vessels are not equipped with generators to provide power for electric fans and blowers, so natural airflow and some wind assistance can be used to direct air into the bottom of the cargo and engine holds separately and extract the warm air from the top of the holds. Cost is estimated at approximately US$2, 500 for each vessel assuming only one cargo hold.
  2. Insulation of engine compartment - by construction of a proper barrier between the engine and the cargo hold and fitting an insulating layer to prevent heat from the engine entering the cargo hold. The insulation could be prefabricated polystyrene panels (approximate cost US$500 per vessel), or steel coated polystyrene sandwich panels (approximate cost US$1,500), or polyester foam insulation sprayed into place or onto spercially prepared plywood panels (approximate cost US$600 if sprayed into place directly or US$800 if sprayed onto plywood panels). All costs include wood, plywood and other materials as well as the insulation material itself.
  3. Cargo lifting equipment - intended only for the wooden sloops. Figure 6.6. (see Figure 6.6. Cargo lifting equipment for inter-island schooners), below, shows a suitable installation which can be fitted to the mast and yet would not interfere with normal sailing operations. At a later stage owners could fit a small diesel powered winch to further improve the design.

Very few of the inter-island vessels carry any form of insurance because the owners claim the premiums are too high. The history of the inter-island trade is characterized by many sinking of wooden vessels with a complete loss of cargo and occasionally the lives of the hucksters accompanying their produce. Today, only a few of the steel vessels carry passengers and most of the traders fly to their destinations and meet the cargo there. The exceptions are still the very small open boats serving Marie Galante and Les Saintes from Dominica which still carry passengers and still experience losses of life and cargo.

Without insurance of their vessels, the owners cannot obtain loans for improvements to the vessels. However, the profits from the trade have been estimated on several occasions to be easily sufficient to support the cost of the above recommended improvements from cashflow alone and loans should not be necessary for any but the most poorly operated vessels. It would appear that the principal barrier to improving the vessels is the intransigence of the captains and owners content to reap their profits without the bother of improving the trade. Hucksters and traffickers generally lack sufficient organization and cooperative spirit to force the owners into making improvements, and some owners are hucksters themselves.

Various reports, recommendations and proposals have been made by different aid organizations in the region to introduce an independent freight service based on modern and possibly purpose built vessels more suited to the transport of fresh produce. To-date, none of these suggested interventions has become a reality, and the inter-island trade will continue to suffer high postharvest losses of fresh produce because of inadequate transport service and conditions. The dilemma is such that some improvements can be made by introducing better forms of packaging (see Section 4.4.2.) but these will be limited until improvements are made in the vessels themselves. In addition, most of the vessels are really only suited to the use of sacks and bags because of the size and shape of the cargo hold.

 

6.4.2. Refrigerated Sea Transport

The perishability of fresh produce, allied with its tendency to heat up in confined spaces leading to rapid spoilage and decay, are all reasons why long distance unrefrigerated ship transportation is seldom used and never without high levels of spoilage. It is not likely that any mayor advances will be made in unrefrigerated shipping design to make the transport of fresh produce less risky. In most circumstances sea transportation is by reefer vessel and is largely used for export of fresh produce. Sea transportation, because of the journey times, is effectively a form of refrigerated storage and all the precautions necessary for storage are relevant here also.

  1. Reefer vessels - are totally refrigerated, have efficient air circulation systems and controllable rates of air-exchange. Loading is facilitated by side-hatches or by specialized loop-belt continuous conveyors, which transport the individual packages from the loading wharf up above the central hatches of the vessel and down into the holds (they are used in an identical fashion for off-loading). Reefer vessels are generally high capacity (4000 tones or more) and regularly carry fresh produce all over the world. The limiting factors are the journey times, which may exceed the storage-life of most produce, and the considerable amount of handling involved in loading and unloading. Palletisation of produce has reduced much of the handling but break-bulk loading of individual packages is still widely used.
    Reefer vessel transportation usually involves the export of large volumes of fresh produce and necessitates the dedicated activities of full-time personnel employed by a large volume producer. For example in the Eastern Caribbean, the banana operations. Chartering, if to be successful means organising regular large volume supplies of produce over an extended period or charter vessels will not be available.
  2. Reefer containers - are a specialized form of sea transportation which is rapidly growing in international popularity. Each container either has its own independent refrigeration system which can be powered electrically by the container vessel, or has special air ducts are one end which are lined up with conduits on the container vessel and refrigeration is thus provided entirely by the vessel's own system (this is know as the "ConAir" system). Reefer containers are in standard sizes all of which are 8 x 8 ft. cross section, but which may be 10, 20, 30 or 40 ft. long. The most widely used sizes are the 40ft. followed by the 20ft. size. The container can be bought or leased but they can be very expensive and can vary greatly in quality and performance. Their principal advantages are:

However, their disadvantages are:

6.5. Air transportation

Air transportation is very expensive and usually can only be justified for high value export produce such as exotic tropical fruits and vegetables for the extra-regional markets. These markets are very sophisticated and demand top quality produce which is carefully packed in standardized fibre-board cartons and correctly labelled. Any produce not meeting these specifications, or of less than top quality, will either be rejected immediately or will be down-graded to a price level which gives a break-even price for the exporter or very often a loss on the consignment.

Airplane

All air-freighted exports require a high degree of market research, planning, organization and management. Constant communication with identified importers is vital to guage market trend, prices and fluctuations in demand, together with feedback on quality control.

  1. Costs - of air freight will vary according to distance carried and whether a charter or scheduled flight is used. If production and package costs are added it can very quickly be seen that profit margins are low. Some countries see export of these commodities less as a profit maker and more as an earner of valuable foreign exchange. Lack of planning and good management will result in poor quality, rejection and possible loss of income.
  2. Airport handling - airports are designed to keep people away from cargo areas, but it is essential that personnel are given clearance for supervising the loading of produce onto the plane. The produce must be at the airport well before the time of flight departure. Delays are common and so facilities for holding the produce at the airport are necessary, and they must either be refrigerated or at the very least shaded. The loading supervisor or another person should have all necessary paperwork processed in good time and details of the consignment should be sent to the importer by telex or telefax.
  3. Air containers - fresh produce may be sent by cargo carrier but more usually in the cargo hold of a passenger aircraft. The quantity that can be sent will vary according to aircraft and space available. Most aircraft servicing the Eastern Caribbean employ unit load containers (ULD), which fit the contours of the hold, as well as carrying goods packed loose. Others may use special thin aluminium pallets which are moved over rollers. These can be leased and a supply kept at the packhouse with the necessary securing nets. By palletising in this way at the packhouse and perhaps using refrigerated trucks the handling of the produce is greatly reduced and loading times for the aircraft become very rapid.
  4. Temperature and pressure - cargo holds are frequently maintained at the same temperature and pressure as passenger areas, but this may not always be the case. Very often chill temperatures at high altitude can cause irreversible damage to the produce and flight conditions should always be checked with the airline.
    Of the aircraft currently servicing the Eastern Caribbean the situation tends to be confusing in that some holds may be temperature-controlled but at preset temperatures, and no choice is offered as to the temperature set. Other holds on the same aeroplane may have no temperature control and operate at ambient (i.e. at altitude they will be around 0-5 C). Exporters must therefore select which produce must go in which hold well ahead of time and book that space with the airline if chilling of the produce is to be avoided.
  5. Trans-shipment - of fresh produce from one flight to another at an intermediate country airport is nearly always inviting disaster unless personnel are available to supervise. For example, air transport from Dominica and St. Vincent with only small air-fields must be trans-shipped out of the other islands airports which can accommodate large jets and have regular scheduled services to the extra-regional markets. The exporters must then rely upon the others to make sure that the trans-shipment occurs smoothly. This is clearly one major advantage that CATCO has over other exporters in the Eastern Caribbean. Direct flights should always be aimed for to prevent delays, disasters and economic loss.

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