Refrigerated trucks are key to spreading the Oregon nursery industry far and wide
When you think about it, it’s pretty amazing that, say, a young Autumn Blaze® red maple tree (Acer × freemanii ‘Jeffersred’) that starts its days here in Oregon can end up all the way across the country in a backyard in Boston.
Or that Christmas trees that grow up for seven years in the Beaver State make their way, all lush and green, to festively decorated homes in places like California, Texas and even Florida for the holidays.
Such geographical leaps have been made possible over the past few decades in large part due to the evolution of one particular mode of transportation – the refer truck.
As anyone in the nursery industry knows, refrigerated trucks are key to transporting plants, trees and other nursery materials around the county. They’re especially important here in Oregon considering that, according to the Oregon Department of Agriculture, greenhouse and nursery ranks No. 1 on the list of Oregon’s top agricultural commodities. In 2020, the value of production for greenhouse and nursery was nearly $1.2 billion – more than twice the No. 2 commodity, cattle and calves.
Refer trucks are also key because the Oregon nursery industry is one of the largest exporters of nursery materials in the entire nation.
“Our primary mode of transporting goods is by refrigerated trucking or temperature-controlled trucks,” said Joel Mandel, West Coast operations manager for Northland Express Transport, a nursery-focused shipping company with offices in Oregon and Michigan. “For nursery, it’s the best way to help the product maintain a temperature as it’s travelling across the country. If it gets too hot outside, it could scorch the trees and shrubs; if it gets too cold, they could freeze. Refers make sure they get there without frying or freezing.”
At K&M Distribution, a transportation broker headquartered in Rogue River, Ore., about 90% of the loads it moves are nursery products. And of those, a majority need to be shipped in refer trucks.
“You just wouldn’t be able to do it without refer,” said Matt Frederick, logistics coordinator at K&M. “You really need that extra layer of protection for the plants or else it could turn out real messy.”
Frederick said different plants need different temperatures and different levels of refrigeration. As for the latter, refers usually offer two options: a continuous cycle or a stop-start cycle. Which one to choose depends on what species of plant, whether it’s in bloom or not, what the weather’s going to be like, and other factors. Frederick said brokers work closely with both shippers and receivers to determine what’s best for each load.
Bare-root trees have to go on refers and usually need to be held at between 34 and 38 degrees. Some plant species do fine at about 45 degrees in the spring during the height of the shipping season, but as summer takes over, temperatures need to be adjusted. Frederick also said that sometimes, if a plant is headed to a warmer climate, temperatures will be set a little warmer in the refer to help the plant acclimate more quickly upon its arrival.
There is also a refrigerator option for rail transport, but Mandel said that’s a little more scarce and not as common as refer trucks.
And while there are some windows for “dry boxes” or “dry vans” – the name used for non-temperature-controlled semi-trailers – they are fairly short. Again depending on the species, weather and climate, there may be an opportunity for some nurseries to ship their products without refrigeration.
“We have a good dry van time to ship, usually around the end of September and into October, and then there’s a short window in the spring,” Frederick said. Heartier plants, such as conifers and ball and burlap species, can endure being transported in dry boxes, but many other species cannot.
Shipping dry is, naturally, more cost effective than in refers. When it comes to cost, Mandel said dry rail is the most affordable, followed by dry van, refer rail and refer truck.
“The majority leaves in refer trucks,” he said.
Like the demand for nursery goods, demand for refers ebbs and flows. As a result, the past couple years have seen demand – and rates – rocket up as the COVID-19 pandemic kept people at home and focused on their gardens and landscapes.
“COVID made planting cool again,” Frederick said. “Everybody got back in their gardens.”
That meant that inventories got drained, wholesalers sold out and some nurseries even started selling next year’s plants early. Shipping all those goods put a strain on the transportation piece of the industry: drivers were scarce, prices went up and timelines went out the window during the pandemic.
Supply chain constraints and other issues also lengthened the time it took for broken-down trucks to get back on the road. And though there are hundreds of thousands of refrigerated trailers on the road in the U.S., the pandemic made it tough – and more expensive – to find and use them.
“Coming into 2022, we saw significantly higher rates than previous years, just because of the supply and demand issue,” Mandel said.
That’s eased somewhat, especially now that the busiest part of the 2022 season is over. But there’s always something else that could impact the equation, whether that’s the apple and pear harvest in Hood River, pumpkins in Mexico or citrus in Florida – all of which need to ride in refers.
“We always try to look ahead at those harvests and see what they are looking like because they’re going to impact us,” Mandel said.
More cooling ahead
With refers already a cornerstone of the nursery industry, there’s likely no chance that their role will diminish at all, especially as the climate continues to warm.
“I believe climate warming is creating new demand,” Mandel said, “and spending on refer transportation is going to continue to grow. There’ll be bigger demand until at least 2030.”
As that demand grows, so too will the technology that powers refer trucks improve. Mandel said the main area of focus at present revolves around improving the efficiency of refer trucks and their associated cooling units.
Digital readouts and real-time temperature monitoring are making refers even more reliable for shipping plants and trees cross-country. Newer trucks also use electric standby technology, which means the cooling units can maintain temperatures without having to run the diesel engine while parked.
On top of all that, Mandel said nurseries and farms have been making new accommodations to help ease the burden of the long-haul refer drivers who help power the nursery industry.
“They’re reaching out in really heartfelt ways and figuring out ways to make drivers’ rides easier,” he said. “They’re adding overnight parking, vending machines, showers, they’re allowing drivers to drop their trailers if they need to – all these things that the drivers are appreciating and that make a more efficient model overall.”