Fruits of Labour

A procession of ABC Transport roadtrains embark on a seasonal trek to bring watermelons from the Northern Territory to the rest of Australia.

Between Easter and Christmas more than 63,000 bins of watermelons are moved by Primary Connect, the interstate logistics and freight arm of Woolworths Group, from the Northern Territory. In 2017 Primary Connect were considering bringing in a carrier partner to assist with the annual conveyance of melons. As a precondition, they were looking for a proven carrier with experience and an outstanding track record.

The following year they established a partnership with regional carrier ABC Transport to better service the growers of the vast Northern Territory area in which melons represent the largest total freight volume sector, with up to 70,000 tonnes of freight moved annually to southern markets.

Founded in Alice Springs in 1998, ABC Transport also maintains a presence in Darwin and Adelaide where the head office is now located. With expertise in refrigeration, dry goods and general freight, the privately-owned company has diversified in recent years to offer warehousing as an integrated part of its service offering.

The longevity of the business is built on a reputation that it only promises what it can deliver.

In time that has generated what is now a platform in which over 30 B-triples depart weekly from Adelaide. For Primary Connect, ABC Transport hauls around 190 bins per roadtrain loaded with watermelons, each of these is destined for South Australia.

An ABC Transport roadtrain outside a truck stop in the Northern Territory.

A few Kenworth trucks are utilised by the fleet for this purpose but the majority of the 30 triple roadtrains it deploys up and down the Stuart Highway are pulled by durable Australian-made Mack Super-Liners.

Each truck is powered by a 16-litre 685hp rated engine which is paired with a 12-speed automated mDrive transmission with Meritor designed rear drive axles.

A gruelling 3000km leg is completed daily by ABC Transport vehicles, arriving into Darwin in the early hours of the morning.

It takes drivers through the arid regions of the south, the daunting expanse of the red centre and, following what has been something of an ominous wet season, the lush tropical top end.

The landscape is as challenging as it is awe-inspiring according to ABC Transport General Manager Steve Bartkowski.

“All this puts enormous pressure on the equipment to meet the needs of the customers” he says. “Even more so we must maintain temperature-controlled goods at critical levels.”

Aside from Darwin, the main watermelon growers of the territory are located in Douglas Daly, Katherine, Mataranka and Ali Curung.

These four regions dominate the NT melon production accounting for over 10,000 tonnes each.

Another couple of regions outside of these yield between 1,500 to 5,000 tonnes each annually according to a 2016 report released by Northern Territory Farmers Association.

 

ABC Transport drivers collect much of this produce on the return trip back to Adelaide direct from the farms. With the Mack Super-Liners rated to 130 tonnes, watermelons are normally carried in one third or quarter bins depending on the final destination, whereas mangoes, the other major produce from the region, are stacked into trays onto pallets.

As watermelons use three pallets for each tonne of freight moved, demand for CHEP pallets across the sector is often high at around 150,000 pallets total. With the limited growing season that equates to roughly 7,500 pallets per week.

After the ABC Transport trucks arrive in Adelaide, watermelons are moved by road to Primary Connect distribution centres nationally before being delivered to Woolworths Supermarkets and Metro stores.

Nearly 100,000 tonnes of the Northern Territory melon production, at present, is bound for markets outside of the region.

Depending on the harvest, melon production is the largest of the agricultural sectors in tonnage valued at around $70 million each year. Seedless watermelons are by far the largest melon crop in the NT accounting for over 85 per cent of all melon production.

Due to the specifications of the linehaul trucks, all produce is unloaded in Adelaide and transhipped at various hubs. That then enables, according to Steve, the swift overnight distribution into the states the produce is thereafter destined.

“The key is to keep the produce moving so its fresher onto shelves,” says Steve. “In order for that to happen you need to take comfort in knowing the equipment you have purchased meets everyone’s expectations.”

This is one of the reasons why the Mack trucks have maintained such a strong presence in the fleet according to Steve.

“When you call on express truck drivers to leave Adelaide and arrive in Darwin within 36 hours, in an industry driven by demand and tight deadlines, driving skills alone won’t cut it,” he says. “You are really asking a lot out of the products. Especially the trailing equipment purchased.”

As reliability is always a critical factor, ABC Transport specifies BPW axles and suspensions, JOST fifth wheels and landing legs and Carrier refrigeration units.

It is anticipated that new equipment will clock up 450,000kms in just the first 12 months.

The melon industry, started essentially from zero in 1981, spends over $11 million on freight from the NT annually. In the winter months during its dry season, the Territory remains a significant producer of watermelons for the rest of Australia.

“With different regions of the Territory producing produce at different times of the year, the NT is fast becoming a food bowl for the rest of the country,” says Steve.
Speed to market is crucial for ABC Transport given harvesting, as it was last year, can be impacted by various challenges including adverse weather conditions and shortages of seasonal pickers due to COVID-imposed travel restrictions.

Primary Connect works with melon growers to understand their unique needs and supply chain movements every season to reduce their cost of doing business.

Currently, the Australian industry consists of around 300 growers. For ABC Transport, the association with Primary Connect has helped it deliver efficiencies and sustained outcomes for many of these locally-owned businesses in the increasingly expanding and vital agricultural sector of the Northern Territory.

“The combined knowledge and resources of both businesses helps to offer a seamless approach for all the growers involved,” says Steve. “Our motto ‘we only promise what we can deliver’ has led to the business being able to grow year upon year.”

Road sign on the Stuart Highway in the Red Centre of Australia.