Indoor packing lines allowed more volume to move through and kept produce out of the heat and elements. ( Courtesy Western Growers )

Trucks Open Trade Options

Open-bed trucks used to haul war gear caught the attention of farmers in the 1910s. The need for food overseas and problems with shipping perishables via rail got people thinking seriously about using trucks for agriculture.

“At the start of the war in 1914, only 24,900 trucks were produced in the U.S.,” noted The Packer’s 100 Years of Produce: Remembering the 1910s. “At the war’s end in 1918, the total was 227,250.” In cities, trucks replaced horses as the main vehicle for transporting product from railyards to wholesale markets and from markets to retail stores. In growing regions, trucks were found to be more beneficial in traversing marginal roads than wagons.

World War I also helped to precipitate the interest in agriculture on a consumer level. Because of a huge loss of farm workers in Europe (who had been recruited for the battlefield), the U.S. government beseeched Americans to grow their own fresh fruits and vegetables at home so that commercial production could be sent overseas to feed struggling families.

Families whose plots produced more than they could eat could extend their income by “truck farming” (selling excess product, theoretically from a truck). In those days, “10 acres would be a large truck farm, and 2 or 3 acres properly managed, with good markets, will bring a fair living to an ordinary family,” reported the 1908 Yearbook of the USDA. 

“The truck instantly gave farmers greater marketing mobility,” reported The Packer’s 100 Years of Produce:

Remembering the 1920s. “The farmer and country shipper were able to assemble loads for shipment directly to processor or wholesaler. Buyers from processors to wholesalers often came to the local market to buy in truckload lots. All this forever changed the patterns of farm marketing and altered traditional crop patterns.”

Finding Ways Into Far-reaching Areas

Because trucks could go just about anywhere, farmers became more specialized in their equipment, and mechanized tractors were born.

“In the late 1800s, there had been a few steam tractor models built and sold. Even by 1905, there were only six tractor makers in the entire United States. By 1920, there were more than 160 tractor makers selling hundreds of different models powered by a variety of fuels. A year later there were 186 different companies and the number of tractors on farms approached 200,000,” reports Wessel’s Living History Farm, York, Neb., in “Farming in the 1920s.”

Mechanized tractors would obviously become the technology of the future. They didn’t have to be fed and watered like horses, they could cover more ground in less time, and they weren’t affected by extreme temperatures 
like animals. 

Farmers could take land dedicated to raising plow animals and raise crops on the same space, maximizing land value.

“The increased use of mechanical power on farms has influenced agriculture more than any other factor during the present century,” reports Agriculture 1950: “Changes in Agriculture, 1900 to 1950.” “The use of the motortruck has made possible the production of many kinds of farm products, particularly perishable ones in areas remote from market. A synchronized system of marketing and distributing farm products has made it possible for farmers, with the aid of motortrucks, to supply food to consumers hundreds of miles away.”

Growers needing to ship less-than-railcar loads of fruits and vegetables were at a disadvantage in the early 1910s.

They faced higher fees for less-than-carload lots and product had to be unloaded from rail cars and transported to the local market anyway. Trucks offered much more flexibility; trucks hauling fruits and vegetables could quote door-to-door short-haul prices. Long hauls were still mostly done by railroads, which had the time advantage. 

As a result of all these changes, the produce business morphs from a homegrown endeavor to a technological one, evolving from a largely local/regional industry to one that spans the nation. 

In 1914, with the opening of the Panama Canal, the door of opportunity opened further, paving the way for international trade with Europe from the Western U.S. on an even wider scale.