Produce and Railroad Industries Evolve Together
Not only did railroads expand the market for fresh fruits and vegetables, but they opened many smaller growing regions to national trade and forced produce suppliers ultimately to work together to combat the big business of the railroad on things like outrageous fees, logistics and standards.
“Before the advent of steam navigation and railroads, each town and city was dependent on the immediately surrounding country for its supply of perishable vegetable products, and the markets were only supplied during the brief period when each of these products was locally in season,” noted The Packer’s 100 Years of Produce: Remembering the 1890s.
In the Progressive Era, emerging businesses evolved quickly, bringing progress to a once-rural nation.
Secretary of Agriculture Henry C. Wallace exclaimed in a 1922 journal article, “Agriculture is our greatest industry; transportation is our second greatest.
These two industries are dependent upon one another and the national well-being is dependent upon them both.”
Records show that the California citrus industry benefited tremendously in the late 1880s and early 1890s. “Within 10 years of the first rail shipment, the volume of California citrus moving east had grown to more than 2,000 rail cars annually. In another five years the volume had doubled,” according to records from the Railway and Locomotive Historical Society’s RailGiants Train Museum.
Perishables Test Systems in Place
The fragility of fresh produce meant headaches for all involved initially. Rail cars designed for cattle and cargo either didn’t protect product enough from the elements or were so enclosed that interior product began to heat and rot quickly. After the introduction of springs to cushion the ride, fresh vegetables saw less damage.
In addition to quality issues, fees were a major complaint that the industry lodged in the railroad’s heyday. Shipping fees were an obvious necessity, but they could skyrocket given the season and availability of rail cars. Produce shippers could incur demurrage fees or track storage charges if they were unable to get produce unloaded in a timely manner (even though sometimes it was the railroad who was responsible for the delays).
Produce freight and refrigeration costs for rail transport in 1914 were more than 20% of the retail price of California oranges and lemons, according to The Packer’s Century in Produce: Remembering the 1910s, and the same fees made up 31% of the wholesale price of those same items.
However, some companies were willing to pay a fee for improved service.
In the early 1900s, innovative produce marketers looking to move product outside their immediate region utilized the railroads’ “express” service, which mostly ran on passenger trains. Equivalent to a modern-day FedEx service, this mode of transport carried packages weighing more than 4 pounds (which the U.S. Post Office wouldn’t take), faster than freight trains could but with a higher fee.
This system faded out quickly after the country’s entrance into World War I, when the government took over the railroads for war efforts.
Timeliness of deliveries was another huge logistical challenge. As a business, railroads wanted to move as many carloads as possible in the shortest amount of time.
“Refrigerated” cars (initially those with ice bunkers built in on each end with air circulating around the load) helped to maintain the quality of fruits and vegetables going long distances, but often for produce marketers rail cars weren’t available.
R.O. Phillips of the International Apple Distributors Association testified to this problem in 1916. “Refrigerator cars were being used in various parts of the country to haul furniture and other commodities, while perishable goods were rotting at points of origin,” noted The Packer’s 100 Years of Produce: Remembering the 1910s. Railroads’ reach made produce handlers realize that they needed a voice.