Dear OTC, About Those Produce Prices

Perspectives on equity, produce prices, and the freight industry, shaped by writing a letter of public testimony to the Oregon Transportation Commission about value pricing our freeways.

As I did research and put this article of testimony together, surprising—shocking, really—realities came to light. Isn’t it ironic? The refrigerated trucks carrying our produce also drive the destruction of agricultural breadbaskets, & the eventual lack of produce as we know it. If I were a food-producing farmer in rural Oregon, or a farmer anywhere, I’d get behind car-free cities, and soon. Reasons why are in my letter, posted below.

Photo of peeled and unpeeled lychee fruit with mango & ginger root. photo © Naomi Fast

Fresh lychee, mango, ginger: who brought you to me? (Photo: Naomi Fast)


Dear Commissioners,

Thank you for all your work on this effort, as well as for gathering and evaluating testimony from so many groups & individuals. As a member of the public, I’ve learned a lot through the process.

After watching the OTC listening session on July 12th, I have some thoughts and facts to offer in response to questions Commissioners Martin Callery and Alando Simpson asked about freight mobility and the interstate system component.

First, I also offered testimony at the Portland Metro Area Value Pricing Advisory Committee meeting June 25, & I’d like to restate my support for Option C as a pricing plan. I expect pricing the entire system will seem most fair to the public, & be surer to achieve pricing goals like clean air and mode shifts. I’ll also restate the need for revenue to go to transit & bicycle infrastructure to allow safe, efficient, affordable, & climate friendly (1) options for people at all incomes. As someone in a car-free household, I hope for improvements to bike ways for long (15+ mile) work commutes across counties as well as short (1-3 mile) rides to schools & grocery stores.

OTC Commissioner Alando Simpson
Click to hear Commissioner Simpson’s question. Commissioner Callery’s question is at 3:34:31.

At the listening session, I thought Commissioner Simpson asked Jana Jarvis, president of the Oregon Trucking Association, a very interesting question, about whether produce prices go higher as a result of congestion. Since food on Oregonians’ tables is essential, I was surprised Ms. Jarvis responded she hadn’t seen a cost study on produce prices and congestion. As noted by Commissioner Simpson, cost of food is especially important to families with little to no discretionary income, who can’t participate much beyond food in the retail economy. I was curious why data on such an important issue was not presented by the freight industry.

I learned that, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics 2017 Freight Facts & Figures Report, (2) automobiles are the number two value commodity shipped nationwide. And as of 2013 in Oregon, motorized vehicles are the top commodity shipped both to and from the state. (3) Auto shipping is a historic use of the semi-truck, which was invented in 1898 by Alexander Winton, a Scottish emigrant to the United States who wanted a way to deliver cars to buyers. (4)

I wondered, then, how critical produce is to the freight industry. The Bureau reports as of 2015, the US freight industry’s top two commodities by value are electronics & motorized vehicles. By weight, top commodities are natural gas, coke (a high carbon content fuel) & asphalt, followed by gravel and gasoline. In 2015 the industry hauled 20 times more waste & scrap—the nation’s 10th top commodity at 653 million tons—than produce, which saw record shipments of 33.6 million tons in 2017 according to Agricultural Refrigerated Truck Quarterly. (5) The Pacific Northwest reported shipping out just 1.87 million tons of produce in the fourth quarter of 2017, down 3 percent from 2016. Known pollutant ‘diesel fuel’ is the big expense in produce shipping and a potential medical expense for people living near freeways. Diesel refrigerated trucks save food from spoiling, but they use 25% more fuel & create more pollution, including noise. (6)

It appears produce is far from the most profitable load trucks carry. Even “Other Foodstuffs,” which may be subject to new FDA transportation safety rules, (7) and includes things like sugar and coffee, are 9th for weight and 10th for value. That’s far below fuel oils, gasoline, coal, and crude petroleum, products that might be affected by a reduced demand for single occupancy vehicle (SOV) driving. Bad for oil business profits, perhaps; but good for people’s health and the climate.

The Oregon Trucking Association has stated it can’t accept value pricing unless more freeway capacity is added, regardless of whether that capacity would even be needed with smart, successful value pricing. New freeway capacity could no doubt be expected to increase car sales. More new cars trucked here would soon congest new lanes of roads (induced demand).

In 2012, Fresno State actually did conduct a study on transport of fresh produce. (8) They found that “on a commodity specific basis the choice of surface transportation mode appears to be linked with relative perishability. Hence, more perishable crops with higher values would utilize air transport, while less perishable low value crops might be more likely to move by rail.”

A 2017 FreightWaves article reported a Stifel analysis found it likely that long shelf-life produce shipment will be moved to rail. (9) And a 2018 New York Times article asserts most of America’s fruit is imported, arriving in marine or air containers. (10) Regardless of where produce is grown, the fact remains it is not rated a “top commodity” in the trucking industry.

A final Bureau of Transportation Statistics note: the largest percentage of goods are moved short distances, & rail’s the dominant mode for shipments moved further, from 750 to 2,000 miles. (The report uses Great Circle Distance, or “as the crow flies” miles, not driving distance.) It states: “Approximately 50 percent of the weight and 37 percent of the value of goods were moved less than 100 miles between origin and destination in 2015.” That’s no further than Portland to Eugene (in great circle distance miles), or Burns to Ontario in Malheur County.

It’d be interesting to ask the question: What percent of our nation’s interstate system is being used for interstate freight movement, versus in-state deliveries, versus local personal driving?

Just as an interstate system is connected with the nation, our climate is connected with the world. What we do—or fail to do—with road pricing in Oregon has national and international impacts, as well as local. If we are bold with reducing SOV car use, the Portland area could be seen as a transportation oasis. We should be mindful, too, that our transportation behaviors in Oregon are currently contributing to devastating climate impacts around the world, that in turn affect us here in a myriad of ways. In May of this year, Phil Mote, director of Oregon Climate Change Research Institute and Oregon DEQ director Richard Whitman testified at the inaugural Joint Interim Committee on Carbon Reduction meeting about these global realities. (11)

Whitman said Oregon is seeing a substantial rise in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the transportation sector. Oregon is now 10% above 1990 levels of GHG emissions, & about half that 10% increase is due to an increase in transportation-related GHG emissions. He said the fastest growing sub-category within transportation for GHG emissions growth is in the freight sector, with a bump up in GHG from individual passenger vehicle miles traveled (VMT).

Back to produce: California produces a 1/3 of the nation’s vegetables and 2/3 of the nation’s fruits and nuts, but one thing that 2012 Fresno State study did not consider is road capacity’s link to rises in GHG emissions from personal VMT & climate change. But a study published in a May 2018 special edition of the peer-reviewed journal Agronomy is concerning. (12) It was written about from Los Angeles Times to Modern Farmer. As a San Francisco KQED reporter highlights, the report warns: “For California, as an agricultural leader for various commodities, impacts on agricultural production due to climate change would not only translate into national food security issues but also economic impacts that could disrupt state and national commodity systems.” (13)

We’ve already felt it in Oregon. A couple years ago, shopping for grapefruit at a local Fred Meyer, the produce manager said there’d be no shipment of grapefruit for days. The reason? Storms delaying the harvesting season, and later, huánglóngbìng (HLB), a disease which has only affected US citrus crops since 2005. (14) Climate change, worsened with every road we expand, has a far greater impact on produce—and not just its price, but its very availability.

More transit & bicycle capacity is clearly in the best interest of achieving our most urgent pricing goals, including the need to protect Oregonians’ local environments, farm land, land for housing, and health (the healthier our bodies, the healthier our wallets). The trucking industry seeking added road capacity seems circular: shipping more automobiles leads to more congestion. Meanwhile, many Oregonians would like to cease being car dependent.

Because of Portland’s head start with creating bicycle infrastructure and public transit, Oregon’s now poised to be America’s leader into a new transportation era. I’m excited for the opportunity your evaluation and proposal presents for Oregon to boldly move into our best transportation future. I see that future as one where transit and bicycles have much safer, more efficient, and available infrastructure, creating truly inviting mode choices; a future striding toward environmental justice; & one moving sustainably into our climate unknowns.

Thank you again for your time and thought into this issue.

Naomi Fast

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