The Bonipak Label Means Fresh Produce; Leased Trucks from PacLease Help Make it Possible
February 6, 2023
When it comes to the saying “farm fresh,” you’d be hard pressed to find a produce grower/shipper that takes it to heart more than Bonita Packing/Betteravia Farms and its sister company, Alco Harvesting.
In business since 1932, the Santa Maria-based company markets its produce under the Bonipak label and sells more than 20 million cartons a year. When you consider a carton can contain 24 heads of lettuce, the size of their operation comes into focus. If you live on the West Coast – Washington to California and into Arizona – you’ve likely consumed one of its 16 vegetables – perhaps a leafy green, cauliflower or broccoli.
“We’re quite diverse,” said Jeremy MacKenzie, who is GM of Alco, and VP of harvesting for Bonita. “We grow produce in the Santa Maria valley most of the year, and then November through April, the bulk of our harvest comes from Yuma, Arizona. Since we control the harvest, packaging and distribution, we can ensure consumers receive the freshest produce possible.”
Since 2018, the company has been relying on a leased fleet of Peterbilts, from PacLease, to handle much of its earth to store logistics. Since its first order of five Peterbilt 579s, the company has expanded to 33 Peterbilts with additional units on order.
“Before working with PacLease we were outsourcing our loads to our customers,” recalled MacKenzie. “We decided we needed more control of our trucking operation from a price, control and on-time delivery standpoint. We originally looked into truck ownership, but the expense of buying trucks and then availability of mechanics and setting up a shop made us consider leasing.”
According to MacKenzie, PacLease rose to the top by offering Peterbilt equipment and customer support to ensure uptime. “PacLease had the ability to service our company in both Santa Maria and Yuma,” MacKenzie said. “Bill Russell (the PacLease salesperson) understood our business and walked us through the leasing and spec’ing process – everything from the engine to the transmission -- all the way down to spec’ing red seat belts so we know our drivers are wearing them,” he said. The Peterbilt Model 579s are equipped with PACCAR MX-13 engines, rated at 455 hp., and feature the PACCAR TX-12 automated transmission.
“It was important to us that we could lease Peterbilt trucks,” continued MacKenizie. “I was brand new to trucking so I asked drivers what trucks they preferred, and I asked Anthony (Cochiolo) our Bonita transportation operations manager the same question. They all came back with Peterbilt. It’s an iconic brand and gold standard in the trucking industry. I knew if we leased those trucks our drivers would be pleased. In fact, I had one driver come into my office almost in tears – he had never driven a new truck and here he was getting a new Peterbilt that he helped pick out. Our drivers take care of these trucks like they are their own – that’s how much pride they have in what they drive.”
For the Alco Harvesting side of the business, harvesting is done in fields up to 20 miles north, south and east of Bonita’s distribution center. “We’ll rotate from field to field and load a 140 to 160 trailers a day,” said Will Hames, Operations Manager for Alco Harvesting. Before the trucks are loaded, produce is cleaned, bagged and put in cartons – streamlining the distribution process once produce goes to the coolers.
“We operate 22 PacLease units – two and three-axle Peterbilt 579 that pull two 26-foot flatbed trailers. Each trailer can be loaded with 12 pallets – each pallet holds between 40 and 56 cartons of produce. We also have our berry trucks, which are three Peterbilt 220’s cabovers with flatbeds, and they can carry up to 24 pallets.”
Once the produce is transported to Bonita, the cartons are placed in coolers to bring temperatures down. Once stable, they go into storage where produce is then loaded on 53-foot reefer trailers for final transport to major grocery retailers.
During the offseason in Santa Maria, Hames uses the PacLease trucks to transport around 60 loads of agriculture equipment to Yuma for use in the fields. Those trucks then repeat the process of hauling produce to coolers – readying for final distribution to customers.
Handling product distribution for Bonita, is Anthony Cochiolo, who is a third-generation trucker himself, who has worked with produce and trucks all his life. “My grandfather started a family business in 1937 hauling hay, grains and he had some tankers,” he said. “My dad took over in 1967, and then I took over in 1987. From the very beginning we all bought Peterbilts. In 2020, my son began managing the family operation, which has 10 trucks, and I went to work for Bonita.”
Cochiolo’s operation at Bonita runs 10 Peterbilt Model 579s equipped with 58-inch sleepers. Those trucks are used for long-haul runs up and down the coast and put on between 120,000 to 150,000 miles per year. “We run about 25% long haul, and 75% regional,” he said. “We typically load out 140 truckloads a day from our distribution center. About 30% of the loads we handle, some are handled by asset-based carriers, and the rest are customers who come to our dock and take the load to their own facilities.”
Cochiolo said the PacLease trucks are working exceedingly well, and fuel economy numbers are strong. “We’re seeing great numbers and we’re running loaded both ways – we have backhauls on returning trips.”
When it comes to maintenance, PacLease provides mobile service to both Santa Maria and Yuma facilities. That keeps downtime to a minimum. PacLease also provides replacement trucks in the event of downtime for any leased units. “That ensures we keep running,” said MacKenzie. “There’s nothing more perishable than the produce we harvest, and we have delivery windows with all the grocery chains we work with. This gives us the peace of mind we need.”
Two other benefits of running its own fleet of high image Peterbilts is “advertising,” while also controlling costs.
“These trucks certainly build our brand and image,” said MacKenzie. “They’re rolling billboards for us, and we often get great comments from customers about our trucks. What’s more, we have fixed costs now – we can control our spend and that helps with budgeting. We’re no longer at the mercy of carriers and others who can dictate rates. Leasing gives us full control.”