Shippers of dried fruit and nuts, one of the major commodities moving off the West Coast to Europe, have used North Atlantic conference carriers for the last three years because no non-conference lines were willing to offer competitive rates.

But that has changed with the appearance of Evergreen Marine Corp. as a serious contender for the 12,000 containers that grower cooperatives like Blue Diamond Almonds and Sun Diamond Growers tender to ocean carriers each year."They made us an offer," said Jil Morley, transportation administrator with Blue Diamond Growers in Sacramento.

Evergreen ties the West Coast-Europe trade into its round-the-world service that calls at the Port of Los Angeles.

The round-the-world service run by Cho Yang and DSR Senator Lines, both conference carriers, had an advantage over Evergreen because its ships call at Oakland, a primary export conduit for agricultural goods grown in the central valley, including dried fruit and nuts.

Evergreen is now offering Blue Diamond and Sun Diamond an Oakland bill of lading, meaning that the carrier will pay the $500 or so to move each of their containers south to Los Angeles where they would link up with the round-the- world vessels.

"It has been unusual. They haven't been interested in our business for the last three years," said C.H. Ponder, logistics vice president at Sun Diamond Growers, shippers of Sun-Maid raisins, Diamond walnuts, Blue Ribbon figs and other products.

Blue Diamond and Sun Diamond, which pool their cargo to gain leverage with ocean carriers, just signed a four-month contract with the Trans-Atlantic Conference Agreement, the North Atlantic conference. The contract commits them to ship a combined total of 800 containers before year-end, with TACA lines at an average cost of $3,200.

But their 1996 business may be up for grabs. Ms. Morley said that TACA recently sent Blue Diamond a letter outlining the conference's planned rate increases for 1996. The letter, she said, indicated that the conference planned to simply increase the terms of their existing contract accordingly.

"That doesn't leave a lot of room for negotiation or IAs (independent rate actions)," she said.

What may give Evergreen an edge is the fact that neither shipper has been very happy with TACA. They've complained about rate increases, the September start date for their contracts, and the fact they received nothing from the government mandated rate rollback earlier this year.

At the same time, Ms. Morley said she would be hesitant to give all the business to one carrier. Blue Diamond uses two carriers - Cho Yang out of Oakland and Sea-Land Service Inc. out of Houston - for time-sensitive shipments.

Evergreen would not confirm that it is soliciting dried fruit and nut shipments moving off the West Coast.

"Evergreen has always been willing to offer service for all acceptable commodities at competitive and compensatory rate levels, which will vary according to many factors," an Evergreen representative said.