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Shortage of truckers hurts farmers

Though U.S. farmers are producing an abundance of agricultural products ready for interstate shipping, it’s hard to find truck drivers to move them.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service recently reported that most shipping routes to major U.S. cities are operating with trucking shortages.

Economists say pandemic-related fears cut into the workforce last year, and fewer trucks and parts are available because of an interrupted global supply chain. Tightening federal regulations, driver restrictions and spiking fuel prices have created additional strain. And truckers, on average, are aging, and fewer young people are seeking those jobs.

An April report by the California Farm Bureau Federation said the seasonal nature of agricultural trucking also was a disadvantage in a fast-recovering U.S. economy competing for full-time drivers.

Independent grain and fertilizer hauler Robert Patton of Walnut Hills Farms in King and Queen County finally sold one of his four trucks when a driver resigned in February.

“There just wasn’t anybody available to take his place,” Patton said. “So I wound up selling his piece of equipment. It costs too much to have a truck just sitting around. The numbers aren’t good.”

Fortunately, Patton’s current fleet is booked.

“I’ll take anybody that’s got a truck right now,” he said. “It’s hard to keep up; especially with grain piling up from the wheat harvest. Everybody’s trying to get that to market.”

While companies are starting to pay higher trucker wages, years of experience is required, and the career is not generally appealing to young people entering the workforce.

Patton said he can understand that. “Trucking is kind of a hard job, and the hours are goofy,” he said. “There are a lot easier ways to make a living now.”

In March, Congress reintroduced a bipartisan bill called the Developing Responsible Individuals for a Vibrant Economy (DRIVE-Safe) Act to address the driver shortage and enhance job opportunities for young truckers by directing the U.S. Department of Transportation to implement an apprenticeship program for commercial drivers under 21.

Virginia Farm Bureau Federation Grain Division manager Robert Harper said he’s observed a steady need for more truckers in recent years, but now the issue is affecting industries beyond agriculture. He said of all the factors driving the trucking shortage, federal emissions regulations and driver restrictions hurt the most.

“In many cases, it can be unrealistic—the restrictions and regulations put on truckers,” Harper said. He explained that the expectation of just-in-time delivery has fueled demand for even more drivers because current haulers are limited by restrictions on drive time.

“And manufacturers have had to overcome some monumental hurdles with emissions,” Harper said. “Even if the air quality regulations are well-meaning.”