Multiple breakdowns in how goods are transported across the country and around the globe are worsening crises in a food and agriculture sector that is already bleeding profits and customers, according to witnesses at a House hearing Wednesday.
Trucking companies are short tens of thousands of drivers, and port congestion is hurting ag sector customers even as the cost of getting commodities to their destinations continues to rise. Those are some of the core messages delivered by witnesses before the House Agriculture Committee to lawmakers who widely acknowledged the gravity of the situation.
“We need to sound the alarm because I think we’re actually in a crisis when I look at all aspects of this,” said Rep. Glenn "GT" Thompson of Pennsylvania, the top Republican on the panel.
Mike Durkin, president and CEO of Leprino Foods Company, testified that the severe port congestion, coupled with the difficulty of getting cargo containers on ships, is costing his company millions in sales as well as customers, who are turning to competitors.
“The supply chain challenges have significantly impacted our business, and we don’t expect them to ease anytime soon. I’m here to talk about a critical component of this disruption that has not received much attention – exports,” Durkin said. “This export crisis may well result in irreparable harm to American agriculture as customers around the world are questioning the U.S. dairy industry’s reliability as a supplier.”
Durkin and other witnesses expressed strong support for a bill introduced this summer by Reps. John Garamendi, D-Calif., and Dusty Johnson, R-S.D, which would stop shipping companies from blocking the ability of U.S. exporters to get their commodities on vessels as well as protect against excessive port fees.
Durkin said he was at the hearing to “sound the alarm on the export crises we’re experiencing.”
Nearly all of the bookings for overseas shipments by Leprino – the largest maker of mozzarella cheese and biggest buyer of milk in the country – have been cancelled and then rebooked, Durkin said.
Shipping costs for the company rose by $25 million this year, and Durkin said he expects the same in 2022.
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When it comes to the extreme shortfall of American truckers, Chairman David Scott, a Georgia Democrat, pledged that he is working with the House Labor and Transportation committees to address industry’s inability to attract recruits and keep them trucking.
“Seventy percent of the nation’s freight is carried by commercial trucks, yet as our economy strengthens, motor carriers have difficulty sourcing the drivers they need to handle growing capacity,” Jon Samson, executive director of the Agricultural & Food Transporters Conference, said in his written testimony.
As of now there is a shortage of 80,000 truck drivers in the U.S., but that’s expected to more than double in less than a decade, he predicted.
There just aren’t enough drivers to deliver fertilizer to farms, haul cheese to ports for export to Asia, bring food to schools for children’s lunches or take fruits and vegetables to retailers.
A major problem is getting younger workers to become truck drivers. Most states allow for a commercial trucker's license at the age of 18, but that’s only within the state. Federal law prohibits interstate trucking under the age of 21.
There’s a provision in the pending $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that creates a pilot program to roll back the age for interstate trucking to 18 for roughly 3,000 drivers.
“This is a good start,” Rod Wells, chief supply chain officer for GROWMARK, said about the pilot project. “Obviously, the earlier you get folks into the industry, the better chance you have for then to develop a career out of it.”
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