A conversation with Steve Covey

Choptank Transport is a full-service third-party logistics broker specializing in refrigerated and van transportation. Providing transportation solutions throughout the U.S., Canada and Mexico with over 10,000 carriers under contract and 24-hour dispatch, Choptank Transport boasts one of the fastest growth rates in the industry.

Steve Covey speaks with a Choptank Transport driver who’s preparing to go on a new assignment.
Photo courtesy of Harriet Mills.

Vice President Steve Covey is remarkably knowledgeable about the produce industry and the challenges facing growers. He has to understand the issues facing growers in order to do his job effectively.

What would you like growers to know about doing business with their trucking company?

Relationships are everything in this business. In today’s climate, you have to attach yourself to people you trust and believe in. It’s bigger than just the company they represent.

Why are relationships important?

You have to have relationships in place, because it is definitely a partnership. Growers are in this business because they love it and it is their life. The same is true for us. Both parties have a lot of pride in what they do. Moving produce is time-intensive because the product has a specific marketing window. Many products need to be in the hands of the end users for the holiday rushes, such as Memorial Day, July 4, Labor Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas. For example, pumpkins are big in September and October, but if you don’t deliver pumpkins in a timely manner, the demand disappears. Come November 1, the value of pumpkins goes down, not up.

It sounds like transporting produce is somewhat risky.

The more I talk to you I’m wondering why in the heck do we do it. It’s a lot of risk. The reason we do it is relationships. In today’s economic climate, you want to do business with people you trust, who are financially sound and good decision-makers. Some of the guys we deal with are almost like family.

What risk factors are involved in hauling produce?

  • Spoilage damage on any product with a shelf life.
  • Timeliness: Crops don’t work Monday to Friday. You might have to be ready at a moment’s notice to change your schedule.
  • Weather is always a factor [in two ways]: This year the heavy rains resulted in major production issues. If you’re scheduled to haul 10 loads on a Friday and it’s raining all day long, you might have to hold off until Saturday to haul them. [Shipping delays can result in the quality of the product decreasing.]
  • Fewer small farms.
  • Tightening government regulations are a challenge and prevent new upstarts from going into this business. Regulations on equipment condition: When you’re hauling something that’s not in a plastic film, it’s going “right to mouth,” so it’s paramount your equipment is clean and in top shape at all times, with no smells or odors. Regulations of temperature are tightening.

If I saw a start-up company in transportation that wanted to focus on produce, I would feel led to tell them to consider all the factors that go into hauling produce.

Let’s talk more about regulations. How do agricultural regulations affect your business?

In Maryland, agriculture is the economic driver in the tips of the state and on the eastern shore where we’re located. Central Maryland is basically Washington, D.C. The state is very firm and consistent on environmental regulations. Growers have to keep up with rules and regulations; those who apply pesticides on their land have to go to training courses.

With D.C. being right on top of us, if there’s any shortcomings in [a grower’s] program, the grower will probably be the first one audited. Not only do you have to be 100 percent compliant, but you also have to be looking out for what’s next around the corner that you have to prepare for. It seems there’s a healthy pressure here to constantly improve. That’s a cost of doing business for growers.

Sitting on the transportation side of things, we have to know [what’s] going on and get our pencils out and sharp as possible, knowing our clients need the best pricing possible to get the products moved in and out of stores. We have to be totally cognizant of that, that’s for sure.

How do food safety laws affect shipping?

We’re moving to the point in time when all products will have a temp-tail, which will monitor the temperature the whole trip. Say you have a load of lettuce; it should be kept at 36 to 40 degrees [to prevent spoilage or bacterial growth]. As soon as you encounter major elevation changes, you have a challenge, because the outside temperature can change 20 degrees. One of the biggest things for these food safety laws is how you transport goods. It’s huge right now.

How diverse is the market you serve?

In our industry, we haul all sorts of produce from West Coast to East Coast. Our local community is a very diverse area because of the weather changes from the tip of the eastern shore (the Delmarva Peninsula), where cotton’s grown and tomatoes are popular, to the central part of the shore where greens, pickles, cucumbers, sweet corn [and] melons are big. In September and October, pumpkins come on the market. Climate does allow for a very diverse mixture of produce; there’s no doubt about that. Unlike some areas [of the country], here people don’t always do what their neighbor’s doing. Property lines were done a long time ago, and it’s a series of 100-acre fields (not 1,000-acre fields), which allows you to have a lot of diversity.

How does produce diversity affect shipping methods?

You have to totally understand what’s needed to haul each product. If you’re going to be a transportation provider for the produce industry, you have to know what your risks are.

You have to know how volatile the produce is. Can it go off-condition quick? You [need to] know just as much about the product as the producer. There’s three particular items we’re not big on hauling: strawberries, lettuce and cherries. If we do, the driver we put on that shipment has to be extremely experienced. These things are extremely volatile; they can change overnight, so you want a very experienced driver.

We haul a lot of watermelons. I’ve learned more about watermelons in the past two years to last a lifetime. You think a watermelon’s a watermelon; well, number one, size matters. If the weight’s off just a little bit, it will affect whether the receiver can market it; they can get a skin or film on the outside of them due to extreme weather conditions.

How can an experienced driver make a difference?

Your driver has to know what he’s doing, so you won’t be taken advantage of. [The driver] has to deal with the receivers: the Wal-Marts, the Giant Foods, etc. It helps that we know a lot of the produce managers at these places, to know what they’re looking for. If you bring [a shipment] to a receiver and the produce is rejected, you want a driver who can understand what the issues are with the produce, what’s at stake. You want a driver who can look at it and say why. Is it off-color? Is there a film on it? These are invaluable things to know. Most of the drivers that transport produce are very experienced in it. They’ve done it for years. We have a couple drivers, that’s basically all they do is haul produce. If you’re a transportation provider for produce, you have to know what you’re doing, you have to know your risk factors and you have to be an extension of the customer you’re hauling it for so you can give him good feedback.

If a receiver rejects a shipment of produce, who takes the fall?

If you don’t have a good relationship, it might be put on the trucking company. Legally, the trucking company has the responsibility to deliver the product in the same form in which it received it. However, if you have a good relationship, people talk it out, and nine times out of 10 it gets taken to a different market, where it gets resold for some type of discount based on whatever the problem is, and the shipper takes responsibility for it. But if the shipper takes it, and it doesn’t arrive in the same condition, maybe the refrigerator unit was set improperly, or the driver wasn’t paying attention when they were loading the truck, and the shipper doesn’t have a strong relationship with the customer, the shipper pays for the whole load. The fact is the folks that haul produce form lifelong relationships with customers.

The author is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts and a monthly contributor to Growing.