It's a bountiful life: Leafin' on a jet plane
March/April 2017 California Bountiful magazine
Interview by Kevin Hecteman
Photos courtesy of Commodity Forwarders Inc.
By air, land and sea, Chris Connell keeps agriculture on the move
Who puts the "to" in "farm to fork"? Meet Chris Connell. He's president of Commodity Forwarders Inc., which specializes in shipping produce and other perishable edibles to customers foreign and domestic. The Los Angeles-based company was launched in 1974 with air shipments of California strawberries to Germany.
What does CFI do, and how? Commodity Forwarders Inc. is a perishable-focused freight forwarder, a sort of travel agent for fresh fruits, vegetables and other items that need cool-chain attention such as seafood, flowers, seeds, confectionary, meats, dairy and assorted foodstuffs. Be it by air, sea or truck, our focus is on multi-temperature logistics movement within, out of and into the United States.
What does this company mean to California agriculture? CFI is one of the oldest and largest perishable-only freight forwarders in the United States. All we do is perishables. California is where we got our start through the handling of California-grown berries, asparagus, grapes, stone fruits, lettuce and assorted vegetables. We take pride that we help the growers of California access and supply foreign markets. As with most things, it needs to be a win-win. If we do our job right, we are a tool for the grower/exporter to expand their customer base.
What commodities do you handle into and out of California? Assorted berries, cherries, stone fruits, tomatoes, figs and grapes via air cargo. Items such as lettuce, broccoli, radicchio, dates and citrus tend to lend themselves to ocean, but now and again move via air cargo, based on how quickly the customer might need the goods or if a weather problem with an alternative country provided a window of opportunity for the California exporter or grower. Certain destinations want a mix of goods. As a small volume at one time of many commodities, the air cargo pathway can be helpful. The unique location of Los Angeles and its major gateway of LAX allow for products from Arizona as well as northern Mexico to be put in the supply/demand mix.
Commodity Forwarders Inc. acts as a "travel agent," in the words of CFI President Chris Connell, for perishable shipments such as California-grown fruits and vegetables. The company makes extensive use of airplanes and container ships to move the products.
What's the most unusual or exotic shipment you've handled? Unusual becomes the norm. Every so often we get shipments such as nursery plants, frozen foods and even cheesecake via air cargo. I guess one of our most unusual shipments would have been gourmet frozen mice used for feeding snakes. Don't ask me what made them gourmet. All I know is that they arrived frozen and our invoice was paid.
How did you get into this business? Alfred Kuehlewind started CFI in 1974, focused on moving strawberries from California to Germany via air cargo. Over the years, the business evolved from export from California to other parts of the world via air and sea. Funny enough, our handling of imports into the U.S. also started with strawberries from New Zealand and Australia. The ability to handle inbound via air cargo helped us get educated on trucking as well as the facilities needed to bring product down to the right temperatures. CFI culture evolved to focusing on not just knowing the needs of each of the commodities themselves and how to best use the right air, ocean or truck routings, but also the sense of urgency needed to keep everyone notified.
What do your employees enjoy about the business? One of the things our staff enjoys is, like the commodity themselves, that every season is different. They need to be able to react to quick changes, be it local weather, exchange rates and global changes in supply/demand that make every year different than the previous.
What advice do you have for those thinking of getting into the agriculture-transportation business? The ag-transportation business is not for the faint of heart. If anyone is looking to get into the business, I would suggest that they make sure to find the passion for doing things the right way. It is all about the customer. The measurement of a good transportation provider for perishables is that your customers simply trust you will get it done. Working through problems is the reality, be it a late load out from a packing shed, traffic, clogged ocean ports or delayed aircraft, but being willing to own the information and communicate one's way through these issues is the key to being a considerate partner in the customer's supply chain.