Life is controlled by the climate in North West Victoria, where the Murray River winds its way westwards forming the border between NSW’s Riverina and the Mallee, it’s all about what the local farms can produce. The Murray provides the irrigation for many crops in this semi arid area, but not for others. Good rains at the right time of year mean a bumper crop and plenty of work for everyone. At other times the shortfall or over supply, in terms in inches of rainfall, has local business looking to survive intact through to the next good season.
This area is placed well to serve the Melbourne market with fresh produce. The four and a bit hour drive means trucking operations can run into the city and back on a daily basis. One of these businesses is Barry Knee Haulage. Produce is the name of the game for Barry and his father, Peter, who manage the business and are also involved as drivers when required.
The business itself has been in existence since 1999, when father and son broke away from a business involving a number of members of their wider family. Starting off with some second hand equipment, the first major purchase was a new International Transtar.
The loads the operation handles are virtually all produce out of the local area and then general freight back in. Initially the trailers were simple tautliners, but over time the fleet moved over to refrigerated trailers, both vans and those with insulated curtains. One of which is proving a boon in time spent loading and unloading, and was the principle reason for Diesel’s visit.
At first, just two trucks were running into the Melbourne Markets every night and hauling general cargo back out. As the fleet has grown, the business has expanded to cover the markets in Sydney Brisbane and, sometimes, Adelaide..
There are now seven trucks on the road in the fleet, supplemented by a varying number of sub-contractors.. Two are based locally, one rigid and one semi, pulling in the produce to the Knees’ shed in Piangil, about 40 km North-West of Swan Hill. This is where all of the action takes place every afternoon. Firstly, the trucks destined for Brisbane and Sydney are loaded and then Adelaide. Later, the second wave of produce arrives at the yard after 5 pm, the trucks heading for Melbourne then get loaded with their selection of produce, and head to the markets, hopefully hitting the road before 7 pm.
The longer runs to Brisbane, and occasionally Sydney, are quite often handled by subbies, the work will vary in size on a daily basis and other operators from the region work co-operatively with the Knee operation to make up full trailer loads. A small group of three companies have worked out a way of working together to keep all of their operations viable by helping each other out when needed.
The 2016/2017 stone fruit season has been a struggle for many of the produce transporters. The weather was too wet early on in the growing season and this has led to a smaller low quality harvest. On the afternoon of Diesel’s visit, only two trucks would be heading into Melbourne that night.
“We look after about 100 customers altogether,” said Peter. “For some of them we cart a few bales of wool. Most of our customers are family operated farms. A lot of them are people we have been dealing with for 25 or 30 years.
“We are controlled by the climate, that’s for sure. Some years we get it right and some years we don’t. What effects one crop may not effect another.
“We’ve just got to hope next year’s going to be better. The stone fruit is normally our busiest time, followed by the grapes. Our busy period starts in the second half of October and will carry through until May.”
The trailer mix in the fleet is determined by the back loads which are available. Fridge vans tend to handle interstate, while insulated curtain siders head off to Melbourne. The flexibility of the curtain siders help with the kind of backloads available out of Melbourne, mainly fertiliser and chemicals for the agricultural industry.
Drivers do five legs a week to Melbourne and back, rotating days so the work is covered through weekends. Brisbane is approximately 18 hours away, in terms of driving time, making it a three day trip. Sydney takes two days but the task can be sped up by shuttling trailers and doing changeovers at points like Wagga Wagga and Narrandera.
Two growers in the area have oranges to be transported all year round. They can be relied upon to keep the wheels turning when other produce is scarce. Knees also have back load customers out of Melbourne who need transport for 12 months a year.
The only time a tautliner will handle the Sydney run is if there is a specific backload which can’t be loaded through the rear doors of the fridge. Brisbane backloads are always more problematic, as they are for many in the industry.
Another perennial problem for trucking affects the Knee operation, drivers constantly moving on to a new company, where the grass is expected to be greener. The company has six drivers employed at the moment, but are always looking for reliable drivers.
“We’ve got a young bloke, now,” said Peter. “He has just started driving the rigid. He’s keen and wants to get a semi license. He’s quite happy just doing local work. At the other end of the scale, we have a driver who, when he was younger, put his age up, now he’s regretting it. He is 69, but he’s fit and he does a good job.”
One of the changes in the wind in this area is a contemplated move, by some producers, across from the flexible tautliner and fridge method moving consolidated loads, to running skels and putting produce in containers. As a result, some operators are looking at PBS applications on specific routes to run A-double combinations with the ability to handle two forty foot containers or up to four twenty footers. The number of almonds being grown in the region is increasing quite fast. As this segment of the market continues to grow, it will suit containerisation.
For the moment Barry and Peter are waiting to see how the containerised task develops before putting their own toes in the water of A-double skulls and PBS.