What does ‘agricultural commodities’ mean?
FMCSA official tells OB changes proposed, rule open to public comment
The overarching theme of the industry this week is the shortage of trucks for onion shippers, combined with the electronic logging device mandate hanging over the industry. The combination of holidays and ELD regs have made it tough going for many, although the onion market has remained steady and demand is high.
Jason Vee with Vee’s Marketing in Lake Nebagamon, WI, didn’t mince words in his description of the transportation situation. He said in instances where paying more has taken care of truck shortages in the past, “Last week, no dollar amount was going to get me the trucks I needed.” And, he said, “This week has that same tone. We’ll just have to see how this plays out. Right now I can’t tell if it’s just holiday effect or if we are moving into a new normal in trucking. It’s wild. Rates are double in some places. No one cares about a 50-cent change in onions when their freight rates from Washington to Florida go from $6,000 to $12,000.” Jason said weather doesn’t cause “massive truck shortages like we are experiencing right now.”
He explained, “What’s happening right now is a combination of drivers staying home for the holidays and the first wave of driver attrition as a result of new logbook regulations. The first wave of driver attrition are the drivers that were already close to walking away from trucking already. Maybe they were near retirement or making lateral moves into other work to avoid the new logbook regulations. I think we’ll see a second wave of driver attrition over the next six months as a result of frustration.”
From the other side of the equation, Tom Yager, Chief of the Driver and Carrier Operations Division of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, took time on Jan. 3 to explain to us personally not only the regs but also to let us know there are changes proposed and an opportunity for public comment.
A temporary waiver was issued by the FMCSA on Nov. 20 and signed by FMCSA Deputy Director Cathy F. Gautreaux, providing a breather for some haulers – at least until mid-March
The document is part of the FMCSA’s “Additional ELD Transition Guidance,” and a copy of the waiver can be viewed at https://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/sites/fmcsa.dot.gov/files/docs/regulations/hours-service/elds/86071/limited-90-day-waiver-transportation-agricultural-commodities.pdf.
But from our conversations with shippers, it appears most truckers are already using the devices.
To better assist us, Yager provided a number of documents as a reference and said as for the definition of “agricultural commodities,” storage onions certainly fall into that category. However, he said as it stands now, the ruling specifies the commodities “must come from the original source.” Strictly interpreted, that could mean the farm and field, and Yager agreed that “it’s not completely clear.” He added, “It’s under review at this time.”
One document links to the Federal Register and the public comment arena. It says, “To submit your comment online, go to http://www.regulations.gov, put the docket number, FMCSA–2017–0360, in the keyword box, and click ‘Search.’ When the new screen appears, click on the ‘Comment Now!’ button and type your comment into the text box on the following screen. Choose whether you are submitting your comment as an individual or on behalf of a third party
and then submit. If you submit your comments by mail or hand delivery, submit them in an unbound format, no larger than 81⁄2 by 11 inches, suitable for copying and electronic filing. If you submit comments by mail and would like to know that they reached the facility, please enclose a stamped, self-addressed postcard or envelope. FMCSA will consider all comments and material received during the comment period and may change this guidance based on your comments.”
During the conversation, the chief also pointed out that the rules covering hours of service and time limits for drivers on the road “have been in effect in one form or another since 1935.” Heretofore records were kept by writing in a ledger. The ELD device itself records time driving and location, and without additional capabilities (that some vendors have purchased from the ELD manufacturers), the device doesn’t indicate whether or not the driver is in violation. It’s the added bells and whistles that provide that info. And with many devices, a good portion of what is stored still must be entered manually.
Yager told us the FMCSA has 13,000 authorized inspectors across the nation, and it’s their charge to keep EDL adherence on the up and up. Most of the EDL inspectors are state troopers, and many operate out of ports of entry. But some are on the road, and some inspectors are civilians.
As they become more prevalent, one thing is certain about ELDs and the regulations, and that is they are changing the transportation landscape significantly.
Jason Vee said something that has been overlooked in the new regs – something that’s becoming more evident all the time – is the effect on delivery schedules.
“For example I had a driver do three delivery stops yesterday,” he said. “The first one comes off at 2 a.m. without an issue. At his second stop, he now has three hours of time left to get the last stop unloaded and get to a truck stop where he can eat and shower.”
Except, Jason said, the drive was being held up at the second stop. “He’s mad. They are pissed because he’s making a fuss about getting out of there quickly. And it’s all because the gentlemen driver hasn’t eaten since yesterday, and he doesn’t want to run out of time and have to sit for 10 hours at his third stop with no food, water, showers or fuel.”
One upshot is the effect of the regs on “companies that do lowest bidder models for freight,” he said. “I lost a bunch of money this summer honoring that lowest bidder model. I say integrity is expensive, but at some point losses that large aren’t about integrity. They are about survival. So those contracts are getting trashed this week.”
Shippers are feeling the truck crunch as well. Trish Lovell with Curry and Co. in Brooks, OR, said, “We now are dealing with the new ELD laws, trucks going out of business, and continued increase in rates.”
And from his Weslaco, TX, office, Don Ed Holmes with The Onion House said, “It’s as tough a truck deal as we’ve ever seen. We’re finally getting a few today, but any we found last week were high dollar.” Don Ed continued, “We have a had a couple of customers call and indicate to us the truck deal nationwide is bad, and the slowdown is being caused by the federal government and the new regulations. One guy is convinced it’s the end of the world. I’m hoping that like the 55 mph speed limit years ago when everyone had to reset their clock, this will be a resetting more than people walking away from the industry.”
Bob Meek at Onions 52 in Syracuse, UT, said the truck situation has been tough, and he said his understanding of the temporary waiver for agricultural commodities is depending on the gross volume of sales. He also said the “inflexibility of the downtime is more difficult than the logger itself.”
And in New York Michelle Gurda with A. Gurda Produce in Pine Island said the ELD is creating issues. “We are working hard to plan our trucks in advance, which has helped,” she said. “But it’s really hard to find trucks with fresh hours.”
But the implementation of ELDs alone likely doesn’t account for the lack of transportation, with the holidays also contributing to the truck shortage. Whatever the cause, the tight truck situation is severe. In the Treasure Valley Steve Baker with Baker & Murakami said, “Transportation out of Idaho/Oregon right now is as tight as I can remember.” From his office in Ontario, OR, Steve added, “I don’t think I have ever seen truck/rail shortage last this long.” Fellow IEO shipper Dan Phillips with Central Produce in Payette, ID, concurred, saying, “In the 20 years that I have been with Central Produce, this transportation situation is probably the worst as I have ever seen it.” Phillips added, “If you think about it, many of the drivers could very well be still on their holiday and aren’t going anywhere until they’re ready.”
We’ll continue to follow the story – in fact, it’s impossible not to follow it, because transportation difficulties have risen to the top of industry issues this week. As we learn more about ELD regs, we’ll keep you informed, and we’re always glad to hear YOUR take on the matter as well.