New Zealand can expect another three years of export container space chaos, says big meat company Affco, which has led a private ship hire drive that so far has shifted national exports valued at close to $120 million.
The company's third special charter, its biggest vessel yet, has just left Port of Tauranga carrying 6000 tonnes of frozen beef and a small quantity of lamb, destined for California's Port of Stockton and critically-short US meat shelves.
Of the US$35m ($52m) cargo, more than half is supplied by Affco, heading for a major US customer, retail giant Costco, the biggest meat importer in America.
Also on board the Cool Expreso is product from rival meat companies Silver Fern Farms and Anzco - a sign of how desperately short container shipping space is to New Zealand primary sector exporters.
Half the space in the first export vessel Affco chartered, in June last year, was taken by pip fruit exporters. The second charter vessel on offer wasn't suitable to carry fruit so Affco filled it itself.
Affco won't discuss the cost of a charter for commercial reasons. But Herald inquiries suggest one return voyage to the US, including fuel and labour costs, will set the hirer back more than US$2m ($3m). Vessels are scarce as hen's teeth in the post-pandemic shipping boom, and charter costs have soared for this reason, sector sources say.
Affco sales and marketing chief Mark de Lautour says the company forecast the container space crunch and associated port skips and spiralling costs more than a year ago and acted to build a commercial relationship with Belgian ship owner GreenSeas for the export crisis it saw coming.
"People said this is risky but we have to take zero risk. The risk of doing nothing is much worse."
Affco is owned by New Zealand's Talley family and is one of the country's top four meat exporters. It has annual revenue of more than $1 billion and employs more than 2500 people.
The Expreso, like its two Affco-chartered forerunners hired from GreenSeas, is not a container vessel.
The protectively wrapped, pre-prepared cuts loaded at the ports of Lyttelton, Taranaki and Tauranga are packed in pallets into four hatches, four storeys deep with different temperature zones. The vessel carries its own cranes. It doesn't need to tie up to unload at a container terminal - the berth wait at Long Beach, California is more than a month and worsening, says Affco. And the exports aren't dependent on securing enough refrigerated containers, of which there is a severe global shortage.
If the Affco export load wasn't on the Cool Expreso, it'd still be in cold store in New Zealand awaiting containers and ship space, says de Lautour.
At peak meat export season between November and June, Affco would normally be filling 400 TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent) containers a week, he says.
"I don't see us moving back to 100 per cent container use for at least three years. The problem of getting space on container vessels and getting enough containers is going to last three more years in our assessment."
The Cool Expreso will be back in March for another load of Affco-organised primary sector exports. De Lautour invites interest from non-meat primary produce exporters.
"Because of the different temperature zones [in a ship], it doesn't all have to be meat.
"At this stage, we're just going to the US because they're set up to accept this type of export vessel. Now we're looking to China."
China is Affco's biggest export market - and New Zealand's.
"The opportunity is there. China's port congestion is the same as everywhere else."
Work on the opportunity to repeat the US market delivery initiative with China is "just starting".
The charter vessel project is about primary sector co-operation in a tight economic export spot, says de Lautour.
"It isn't a cost play. We've been careful to make this non-commercial. We haven't looked to profit from it. It's about getting New Zealand product to market."
Manual loading and packing the Cool Expreso with 3500 pallets of meat with a major cyclone warning bearing down was testament to the handling skills of New Zealand stevedores and associated port staff, he says.
The pallets for the chartered shipments needed to be specially built.
"The main trick has been building a commercial relationship with shipowner [GreenSeas]. There's a level of faith involved - for example, we don't pay until the ship is loaded. We now have first right of refusal (for future vessel offers)," says de Lautour.
The company plans another four to six charters this calendar year depending on demand.