Time and again, we've stressed the importance of the "cold chain" in flower quality. Most flowers in the US are moved by refrigerated truck ("reefer") from brokers in Miami and California to local wholesalers. The care and handling in transport are critical, and specialized carriers take it very seriously. A recent article in Trucker's Connection highlighted the challenges and commitments of the drivers who haul flowers for a living.
Running Flowers: it isn't for wimps
(originally published in Trucker's Connection, reprinted with permission)
By Jennifer Hawks
Steve Drewel lives in Texas, but he makes his home on the road. At the moment, he's speaking to me from somewhere between Baltimore and D.C. While he talks on his cell phone, his wife Laura handles their Prime, Inc. leased 2007 Freightliner with a 48-foot Century reefer trailer. Earlier in the day, they picked up a shipment north of Philadelphia and now they're on their way to Miami where they'll pull another load to California. The two make a great team, and that's a good thing because when you're hauling time-sensitive shipments, every hour counts. When they reach Miami, they'll have covered about 1,200 miles in less than 24 hours.
Today it's pharmaceutical supplies. And by three o'clock tomorrow afternoon? Well, it won't be meat slabs or even chilled produce. It'll be flowers. Not exactly the image of a rough and tumble driver, is it? But as Steve tells me, "We enjoy running the flowers."
You might wonder why Steve likes it so much, but as you listen to him talk about his job, the reason becomes clear. It's the challenge. Flowers are even more delicate than they look. The second you cut one, the countdown begins. Time is money in most businesses, that's true, but in the case of time-sensitive freight shipments, delays can be especially deadly. And because floral shipments are also temperature-sensitive, a freight run can get stressful in a hurry.
Now 34, Steve began driving professionally at 26. Five years ago, he signed up with Prime. When the company formed a new division, Prime Floral, in 2004 to cater to the floral industry, Steve jumped on board. Flowers grown in California are consolidated at Prime's service center in California then shipped out around the country. The company has two additional consolidation centers, one in Oregon and another in Miami. The centers make it possible to ship anywhere in the country.
Leon Laughery is Director of Transportation for Greenleaf Wholesale Florist, one of the largest wholesale florists in the country. The company has been in business since 1969 and they rely heavily on Prime Floral for deliveries to their warehouses located around the United States. According to Laughery, years ago flowers were grown all over the country, which meant distribution was more localized. Not anymore. Seventy-five to eighty percent of the flowers sold in the United States now originate in South America and are flown to Miami. That means distribution throughout North America is much more complicated and time-consuming, and the majority of it is by truck, not air.
Scott Kitayama, President and Chief Executive Officer of Greenleaf, explains further. "To get the flowers to Miami probably takes three, four days to get it out of the farm, flown and through inspection, so the product is already a little more aged before it's put on a truck. So the time dependency is incredibly important. I think a lot of people have a misconception (that) time is the only thing that matters. But there is a relationship actually between time and temperature. So, if you keep the product cold, then it can last longer. You can kind of cheat time."
Kitayama believes that getting a flower to its destination as soon as possible isn't nearly as important as maintaining its temperature while in transit. Given the choice between shipping the flower non-refrigerated airfreight overnight and shipping by truck, there's no comparison. "One day versus four days on a truck? I would always take four days on a truck."
There's an art to extending the life of a flower during shipping. Laughery says, "If you can hold the flower in a 'cold chain' in that 34 to 36 degree temperature range, the flower essentially goes dormant. It's simply not aging." Under ideal temperature and handling conditions, a rose can be stored three to four weeks and still have another ten days or more of life after that." But he cautions, "That flower has to be treated almost perfectly from the time that it's cut."
Maintaining ideal conditions is tough. If the temperature is just slightly too hot or too cold, the flowers may end up dead on arrival. Humidity is also a factor. Flowers generate moisture and that makes them susceptible to freezing when humidity levels inside refrigeration units aren't controlled properly. Refrigerating flowers is a more complicated process than simply loading up frozen vegetables that stay frozen and humidity isn't a concern. Though the reefers are equipped with sensors to maintain the proper temperature and humidity levels, the driver has to oversee the systems to ensure they're working correctly.
Customers can log into Prime Floral's Web site and track their shipment in real-time. The satellite technology that makes this possible also provides a log of the reefer's temperature reading. Kitayama suggests that in the future, technology will improve to the point that a flower could be tracked and monitored from the moment it's cut to when it's delivered. Having that information would make a real difference to the freight company's customers. "We could with confidence store it four to six more days, sell it, or get it to the proper place."
The nature of LTL shipments introduces another potential problem. Not all cargo is compatible. In my greenhouse, I know that carrots don't get along with tomatoes, and if I want both of them to grow and flourish, I separate the two as much as possible. Some vegetables don't get along with flowers, either. They emit ethylene gas and that will kill the flowers. Careful cargo planning is a must.
Another potential problem is cargo shifting in transit. Imagine the mess when five-gallon buckets dump water and flowers all over the inside of a reefer. The flowers aren't too happy about it, either. Steve has learned from experience how to stack and secure the floral shipments to make sure nightmares like that
"It takes a special team to run (flowers) because, one, you've got to be patient at the shipper because the flowers are all brought in to consolidation points. They're consolidated, sorted, they figure out their routes, and then they load the trucks. You don't necessarily load until probably one, two o'clock in the morning. And once you're loaded, they figure in a 50 mph average from stop to stop. Then they give you a certain amount of time at each stop to unload. With the floral shipments, all those that we run are unattended deliveries." Occasionally, Steve and Laura make deliveries during regular business hours when they actually get to see their customers. A large part of expedited shipping is customer service, and the standards are high.
"When they ask for you by name," says Laura, "that's something pretty special." She estimates that 75 percent of the freight the pair hauls is floral shipments.
Because their cargo is delicate, the driver must unload carefully. They use keys or passcodes to gain access to the receiver's building and then just as carefully load the flowers into coolers. Then it's on to the next location. Steve told me it's not unusual for him and Laura to run a route with as many as 25 drops on it in over a space of two to three days. Often it's a run from Miami to California or from California to New York. With as much time as the couple spends on the road, their sleeper is practically their home for most of the year. "With all the amenities of home-- minus a few," laughs Steve.
Delivering expedited shipments requires staying on the move. That means the cargo can sometimes take priority over the driver. For instance, daily showers can be a luxury that the schedule can't always afford. That's not all. Steve explains, "You don't have time every day to stop and eat three hot and square meals. We keep a refrigerator on the truck and we keep it stocked with drinks and we've got a microwave." While one drives, the other might be in the back cooking or resting.
Laura has been driving truck for Prime Floral for as long as Steve has. She trades off with him on all of the driving tasks, including loading and unloading the shipments. Laura retains her license as a respiratory therapist, something she did in the past, but doesn't see herself leaving the trucking world anytime soon. For all the same reasons that Steve loves his work, Laura does too, though she has an additional reason. "I get a chance to look at the flowers everyone is getting. Sometimes I actually get flowers!" Occasionally a receiver will refuse the shipment, in which case the shipper may offer the flowers to Laura. In one case, it was three dozen roses. Later, when Steve turns the phone over to Laura, I ask her if her husband ever has to buy her flowers. She chuckles and says, "Every once in awhile."
Running flowers isn't for wimps. Flower shipments can contain 2,500 pieces and weigh from 10 to 60 pounds per box. Many of the flowers are transported as "wet packs," in upright, stackable Procona boxes that are designed to transport cut flowers in water. Cardboard boxes are also used. Sometimes they unload the shipments with a pallet jack, other times they unload it by hand, depending on space and equipment available. On a good day, the receiver will actually have a freight dock and ample room for a tractor-trailer.
Despite all their trouble, flowers are big business. According to Jennifer Sparks at the Society of American Florists, the floral industry generated $19.4 billion in 2006. Annual sales of just cut flowers were $9.6 billion last year. Shippers that can handle the challenge of transporting flowers stand to make good money. So do the drivers, who on average earn more than those who run straight freight.
Steve and Laura often take six to eight weeks of vacation a year. When the hectic work pace threatens to burn him out, Steve takes time off for scuba diving. His gear is always in the tractor so he can dive almost anywhere there's suitable water, but he prefers the Florida coast. It's there that he can escape the madness.
Vacations like those are especially nice after a rough run. "I had one place a couple weeks ago in Nebraska where I had to pull into the alley, and with the wind chill, it was probably ten below out. And I'm carrying flowers from the back of the truck, into the building, back and forth, with no dock."
There's one thing Steve doesn't miss from his days of hauling non-expedited shipments, and that's waiting around for receivers to accept the freight. "It's nice when everyone wants what you have on the back of the trailer," he says with a grin in his voice.
It's not just the product that truckers like Steve and Laura are hauling that make them so popular with customers. It's also the job they do and how they perform it.
"The truckers are unsung heroes," Kitayama says. Laughery agrees and adds, "It's a demanding job and we certainly sympathize with the role they play in our business. They're the linchpin-- they keep everything together." Not only are the growers' livelihoods dependent on the trucks to get their shipments delivered successfully, so too are the receivers'.
Laughery wants to make another point clear. "Trucking is a key element in the floral industry and our existence really depends on them executing their role to perfection. That's why Scott is right in that they're unsung heroes, because, man, if all of a sudden trucks didn't roll, we'd be out of business."
©2007 by Jennifer Hawks