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LEO SMITH

Fruit of Port of Hueneme's Banana Deal Is No Small Potatoes

January 13, 1998|LEO SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Longshoremen working at the Port of Hueneme on Monday were seeing yellow--as in bananas, about 150,000 cartons of them. And they may as well get used to it.

The arrival of the banana shipment, from Ecuador's leading banana exporter, the Noboa Group, was the first of what will be a weekly event at the port.

It is the fulfillment of a three-year contract signed in October between the Swedish Cool Carriers shipping operation and the Ecuadorean banana conglomerate, which calls for an additional 8 million cartons of bananas to come into the port annually, nearly doubling the port's incoming banana volume.

"This will make the Port of Hueneme one of the largest ports on the West Coast," said port spokesman Kam Quarles. "It should vault us into the top position on the West Coast for banana imports, ahead of Los Angeles-Long Beach."

The agreement will have a significant impact on exported as well as imported fruit. After each weekly shipment is delivered and unloaded, an outgoing haul of bananas and Sunkist citrus will set sail for Japan.

"This is a huge piece of business for the port. . . . It keeps the longshoremen working," said Gerry Fountain, president of the Cool Carriers U.S. branch, based out of the Port of Hueneme. "There will be about 48 more men working per day."

The Noboa Group had been shipping its bananas, marketed in the United States under the Bonita label, into the Los Angeles-Long Beach harbor until a tugboat strike last June forced the conglomerate to sail into the Port of Hueneme instead.

As with most business agreements, Fountain said, cost played a role in the Noboa Group's decision to make a permanent switch to Port Hueneme. But there was more to the change than that.

"A couple of things switched it our way," he said. "There is a real shortage of manpower in Los Angeles to handle palette-type shipments. The production out of the labor force here is about 20% more."

With a large portion of the Noboa Group's market in the Los Angeles Basin, the move to Port Hueneme means extra trucking time from ship to warehouse. But Fountain said the exporter expected the efficiency of the local dockworkers to offset the added trucking time.

"We have fast workers, very skilled," he said. "And that was a key thing, along with the cooperation they got from the port."

The port is equipped to handle the additional influx thanks in part to 33 acres of surplus land the Oxnard Harbor District acquired last year from the U.S. Navy. The port, still the smallest in size on the West Coast, is now about 90 acres.

Quarles said that construction on the additional land, which formerly was the site of the Naval Civil Engineering Lab, will equip the site to handle heavy loads of containerized cargo, such as bananas and citrus.

"We're going to need that space to handle those containers, which will all be refrigerated," Quarles said.

"We're demolishing roughly 50 buildings, installing all new utility systems and we're looking at realigning rail access to the port, which will allow us to take containers and load them directly to trains," he added. "It's a capability we really don't have right now, but we need it to remain competitive."

Construction should be complete by the end of the year.

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