Washington Apples Languishing Amid Slowdown at West Coast Ports

William Bloxom spent years courting a grocery chain in Buenaventura, Colombia, to buy Washington apples, only to see much of the sale disappear in a labor dispute at West Coast ports.

A salesperson from his Seattle produce company, F.C. Bloxom Co., made four trips to Colombia to win a $148,000 order for five containers of fruit, he said. After a dockworker slowdown began on Halloween, Bloxom could find berths for only three containers by Nov. 17. The buyer canceled the rest of the shipment, costing Bloxom $60,000, because the apples wouldn’t arrive in time for Christmas, he said.

U.S. exporters of apples, hay, potatoes and other agricultural products are losing hundreds of millions of dollars because of the slowdown, said Peter Friedmann, executive director of the Agriculture Transportation Coalition, a nationwide industry group.

“If we can’t be depended upon to deliver on time what we’ve promised, those foreign customers will go somewhere else, and they’ll never come back,” he said yesterday at a press briefing in Seattle.

About 20,000 members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union in 29 ports from San Diego to the Canadian border have been working without a contract since July 1.

To put pressure on terminal operators and shipping lines, represented by the Pacific Maritime Association, crews have slowed container handling by half in Seattle and Tacoma, walked out mid-shift in Oakland and been unavailable to run cranes in Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Ships Waiting

In Seattle, the slowdown has left container ships anchored in Elliott Bay, waiting to unload, while containers stack up in rail yards. Truckers who used to make 10 or 12 trips a day to pick up or drop off containers are now making as few as one, said Gary Gieser, vice president of sales at MacMillan-Piper, which operates container loading stations in Seattle and Tacoma.

“We’re laying people off every day now,” he said.

Bob Haberman, co-owner of No. 9 Hay Trading Co. in Ellensburg, Washington, said drivers are hauling containers full of feed two hours to the ports, only to bring them back when no berth can be found. Last week, the company shipped 20 of 70 containers bound for overseas, costing it about $480,000 in sales, he said.

For some farmers, including growers of holiday evergreens and apples, Christmas is a critical window.

Apples are a traditional part of the holiday in Central America, according to the Washington Apple Commission, which says the port slowdown is hampering exports of a record crop this year. Washington is the country’s largest apple producer.

“You can’t sell fresh fruit if you don’t have it,” Bloxom said.

The Agriculture Transportation Coalition last week asked President Barack Obama to step in and return the ports to full operations. A White House spokesman said the president was monitoring the situation and didn’t plan to force a resolution.