Fruit orchards are a vital contributor to the economy in rural Washington state, and PROs follow GAP clean service practices to help the agriculture industry thrive.
When a good portion of your portable sanitation revenue depends on fruit orchards and vegetable farms, you must tailor your business for unique requirements of the agriculture industry and big swings in seasonal workload to meet the harvest schedule. In the thick of fruit country, Ace Portable Toilet Rentals and Septic Tank Services, Pasco, Washington, has become expert at meeting farmers’ needs.
Located midway between high desert Spokane, Washington, and Portland, Oregon, the City of Pasco is home to nearly a dozen orchard operations. There are about 50 in Ace’s 40-mile-radius service territory. “Cherries, peaches, pears, a lot of Washington apples,” says Paul Liniger. He and his wife, Martha, bought the business from his father in 2008 after Paul spent more than 20 years working in the corporate world.
Getting portable restrooms to the workers in all those fields is easier now than it was back in 1973 when his father, Myron, started the company. “At that time, we had about 200 wooden toilets that weighed about 500 pounds apiece,” says Liniger. He now has about 500 portable restrooms. Or as Liniger says, “Too many in the winter time and not enough in the summer time.”
While the restrooms are lighter for delivery, serving agricultural customers has become more difficult in other ways.
AGRICULTURAL BEST PRACTICES
In 2011, The Food Safety Modernization Act put teeth behind the Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) issued by the FDA and USDA back in 1998. Rather than voluntary guidelines, the act resulted in regulations concerning the growing, harvesting, sorting, packing and storage of fresh produce. “The biggest challenge is carrying enough freshwater to service the sinks,” says Liniger.
To protect against cross contamination, producers are moving away from portable restrooms with sinks built inside the unit. While many portable restrooms have integrated hand sanitizers, that’s not good enough to meet GAP standards. “Some farmers want units with the sink mounted on the outside,” he says. “That makes delivery difficult because they’re awkward to move around.”
As recommended in GAP standards developed by the Portable Sanitation Association International (PSAI), many farmers are opting for stand-alone sink stations. They require a lot of freshwater, 15 gallons per spigot, according to the PSAI. The standards also say they should be self-contained or drain into a separate and dedicated waste tank.
In response, Liniger has loaded up on freestanding hand-washing stations as farmers are requesting one for every two portable restroom units. He had about 25 from PolyPortables and recently purchased 20 from Satellite Industries.
“On average, our trucks carry 65 to 100 gallons of freshwater for sinks,” says Liniger. “If you have 10 of those stand-alone sinks on your route, it will eat up what you can carry. It’s rare, but farmers are pretty good about letting us replenish with the drinking water from their wells, and we have a dedicated hose for that.”
Farmers are required to provide workers with an area away from the produce for breaks and eating lunch to avoid contamination problems. Many orchard operators have groups of two or three restroom units with a sink scattered throughout the orchard so they are easily accessible as workers move from one group of trees to the next.
The GAP law is not specific as to how many restrooms are needed, but it does reference the OSHA rules (29 CFR 1910.141, subpart J) that require roughly one unit for every 15 workers, up to six for 150 workers and one additional unit for every 40 employees. While he’s not aware of any specific distance requirement, Liniger says the standard seems to be that restrooms should be available within about a quarter mile from the work location.
GAP standards from PSAI state that units should have adequate splash prevention during transport and setup. Any spillage, including during pumping, could contaminate fresh produce, so it must be cleaned immediately.
As it is with many laws and regulations, specific enforcement is often up to the regulator, in this case the GAP auditor from the USDA or other federal or state agency. The frequency of service depends on the farm, which is responsible for meeting the GAP requirements. “Like all units, we service them at least once a week,” says Liniger. “Occasionally, we’ll get a call from one of the growers that they’re going to have a GAP audit, so we’ll go out to make sure everything is tightened up and it hasn’t been a full week since they’ve been serviced.”
Ace’s service protocol is no different because of the GAP rules – restrooms are thoroughly cleaned just as they are at any other location. “If we find units that are getting overused, our drivers will notify the office and I’ll call the customer and talk about more frequent servicing or getting more units on the site.”
Getting to the units is not the same as driving up to a typical construction site. “Some orchards are 1,500 acres with a variety of fruit trees like cherries, apples and pears that come to harvest at different times. So sometimes, things can get a little slippery and muddy, especially if (the farms have) been running their sprinklers.”
For drivers, the rule is pretty simple. “Don’t go anywhere you’re not going to get out of,” he says. Easier said than done, of course, but he says the drivers are pretty good about finding alternate routes for the service trucks. Farmers are also cooperative in using their tractors to pick up and move the restroom units to a more accessible location. Drivers typically do the same routes all the time so they get to know the customer and the conditions.
Getting the truck there is important because Ace’s service is guaranteed, not just for agricultural accounts but for all customers. “If for some reason we can’t get to the farm or job site the day service is scheduled, we put them on a first-stop priority the next morning, get them taken care of and there is no charge for that week. It’s a rare occurrence and expensive for us to do, but it’s better customer service.”
BALANCING THE WORKLOAD
With so much seasonal work, Liniger puts in extra effort keeping people busy in the off-season to prevent layoffs. “It starts with asparagus in mid-April that lasts six weeks or so,” he says. “Asparagus is not what it was 20 years ago. There’s still a handful of growers around, but a lot of asparagus has been pulled up and turned into corn, which doesn’t require portable restrooms.”
There’s a bit of a lull for a couple of weeks until the cherries are ready in late June. “Cherries are a time-sensitive fruit, so the farmers will call the day before or the day they need the toilets. We try to be proactive with them to find out how things are looking and when they expect to start having workers on the farm so we can get toilets placed.”
That harvest is complete in four to six weeks, just in time for the ripening of the world famous Washington apples in mid-August. “They’ll pick apples all the way through November and sometimes into December,” says Liniger. “The longer that apple hangs on the tree, the sweeter the fruit. Once the daytime temperatures are below freezing for a week or so, that’s pretty much it.”
Mixed into that late summer and fall schedule are lesser-grown crops like pears, nectarines and peaches. There are a lot of vineyards in the area that create a small demand, but they don’t require many workers for harvest. “Potatoes hit in mid- to late-September and rolls through about the first week of November,” he adds.
Vacations are for the off-season, when about half as many restrooms are rented out. “We are pretty hardcore about our blackout period for vacations: None are allowed from the first of May through the first of November. That’s the nature of the business, and we tell them that before we hire them.”
While not as busy on the road, the off-season is a good time to get caught up. “We try to keep people busy around the yard and shop doing projects we want to accomplish that we just don’t have time for in the summer,” says Liniger. Some of that involves repairs, such as replacing worn skids on restrooms. Last winter, the staff installed a fence around property the company acquired next door and built more of their portable restroom units for farm use.
There are also septic pumping jobs to help keep people working, something the company added in the mid-1990s that accounts for about 15 percent of the business. Septage and the portable sanitation waste are injected as a soil amendment at an area farm.
The company has a fleet of 12 vacuum trucks from Satellite and Erickson Tank & Pump in Quincy, Washington. Liniger has as many as six or seven trucks on the road at peak times and likes to have enough backup trucks available. During the off-season, he’ll usually have about three trucks on the road.
One of those is a new 2015 Hino service truck with an 850-gallon waste/400-gallon freshwater aluminum tank purchased this winter from Satellite. His favorite rig is still a 2005 Freightliner from Erickson. He bought it used with only 20,000 miles and says it’s the perfect size for working in the orchards. “It has a good Caterpillar engine, 800-gallon aluminum wastewater tank, 400-gallon freshwater tank, and we added a 100-gallon freshwater tank for servicing the agricultural jobs. It’s not too big or small, just right in the middle.”
A 2007 International 4300 that he bought used from Erickson has a 1,500-gallon waste/500-gallon freshwater aluminum tank, so it can be a little big for navigating through orchards. He uses Conde Super 6 HD pumps (Westmoor Ltd.) on his vehicles.
Most of the Ace restrooms are Satellite Tufway models, with some units from PolyJohn and PolyPortables. In 2014, Ace added a two-unit restroom trailer from Regal Mobile Solutions, located in nearby Walla Walla, Washington. While he calls it a “leap of faith’’ to offer the high-end trailer, Liniger deems it a success, having rented it out for weddings and other events about a dozen times the first couple of months.
“I think that’s going to be a value-added service for us and will take off a lot more,’’ he says of the VIP trailer that is a departure from his standard agricultural service. “If anyone calls for a wedding or special event, that will be the first thing I’ll try to sell them.”
He’s also going market the unit to the area vineyards. While they may not have much need for his service during harvest, he sees a niche. “Wine sellers have special events like wine tastings in summer and fall and they’re usually a little more upscale. One of our vineyards rented it last summer. She loved it and already reserved it for this summer.”