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.
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.
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:
- Poor ventilation - none of the vessels had adequate ventilation of the hold and most had no ventilation at all;
- No insulation of the engine compartment - in most of the wooden vessels the engine compartment is not separated from the cargo hold and heat and fumes from the engine mixes with the cargo, often the engine sucks air from the cargo hold because there is no other air supply for engine operation;
- No cargo liftinb equipment - few of the vessels had equipment to assist with loading/unloading of cargo and much damage was impacted on the produce from rough handling by the crew and stevedores;
- Cargohold shape - Only the larger steel vessels offered a practical shape for loading of crates and boxes and the wooden vessels shape meant that sacks and bags were crammed into the spaces between and under heavy wooden crates.
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:
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.
- permit shared use of a reef container vessel by many producers of different commodities, provided they have access to containers and are exporting by the same route.
- greatly reduce handling damage since they are loaded at the packhouse and may not be unloaded until they reach a customer store in the country of export.
- temperature control is independently set and monitored.
- capable of rapid pre-cooling of produce from ambient tropical conditions.
However, their disadvantages are:
- very expensive to own or lease.
- large and heavy and require special lifting equipment.
- need to lease more containers than are in actual fuse because of delayed return and breakdown.
- not all countries have container handling facilities which may limit loading ports and discharge ports, although some vessels are self-loading and unloading.
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.
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.
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