The obvious appeal of fresh produce is just that—its freshness. The downside of harvesting and hauling fresh produce is just that—its freshness. At the turn of the 20th century, finding ways to keep fruits and vegetables in their just-harvested state for as long as possible was the key to advancing the industry.
In the early days, ice was the answer. This natural coolant allowed the produce trade (as well as the meat and dairy industries) to expand further from where product was produced, building demand for fresh items.
“A refrigerator car of the late-1800s could only travel about 250 to 400 miles before it would need re-icing,” notes a report by the Whippany Railway Museum in New Jersey.
“Refer cars” were filled with blocks of ice on each end that were insulated with materials like sawdust or cow hair. Open false ceilings at the top of the rail car’s interior allowed for circulation, and fans blew across the ice blocks to create an air-conditioning of sorts.
At icing stations built strategically along the rail lines, employees would climb a ladder to the top of a rail car and re-ice the load from above by opening a small trap door. “It took 9,000 to 11,000 pounds of ice to fill a car’s bunkers, and each car on a transcontinental trip would require several stops to be re-iced,” the museum notes.
As icing stations cropped up along the rail lines nationwide, the concept of “regional” produce began to take hold. “Consider Georgia peaches, California grapes, peaches, pears, plums, apples and citrus, Washington and Oregon apples, pears, cherries, and raspberries, and of course, Florida citrus. The increasingly widespread distribution of fresh foods expanded markets and helped to create healthier diets of meat, produce, eggs, butter, milk, cheese and fish,” notes an article titled “The Impact of Refrigeration” from History-Magazine.com.
Logistics Take Over
In 1907, the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific railways debuted the Pacific Fruit Express, dedicated to perishables. The service was reported to have 41,000 ice bunker cars in operation during its heyday.
By the 1920s-1930s, advances in mechanization moved the progress toward motorized cooling technologies. In the late 1930s, Frederick Jones created mobile compressor units that would allow cooling of loads (rail or truck) anywhere. “Jones’ technology revolutionized the distribution of food and other perishables. It made fresh produce available anywhere in the country year-round, changing Americans’ eating habits,” reports www.invent.org. Eventually, Jones and his partner Joseph Numero would go on to found Thermo King, a $13 billion global business today.
Refrigeration at Home
Thanks to new technology, consumers who once used root cellars to extend the shelf life of fruits and vegetables upgraded to ice boxes in the early 20th century.
“By the 1920s, the household refrigerator was an essential piece of kitchen furniture,” History-Magazine.com reported.
“In 1921, 5,000 mechanical refrigerators were manufactured in the U.S. Ten years later that number grew past one million and just six years later, nearly six million.”
The ability to cool things changed the way consumers shopped and ate. They could go to the store more frequently and pick up fresh items that hadn’t been available in earlier decades.
The Breakthrough of Cold Storage
On the production side, cold storage was the third key to driving the industry forward in the early 1900s. The ability to pick fruits at their peak freshness and store them in that state revolutionized produce shelf life.
First perfected by the dairy industry in the 1890s, the use of cold storage facilities to hold product opened doors for apples, onions and potatoes. Consumers knew enough to keep apples fresh by storing them in the underground “potato cellar” in the 1800s. Commercially, apple shippers were the first to jump on the bandwagon; 2% of the total apple crop reportedly went into cold storage in 1900.
A more far-reaching effect of the cold rooms, however, was what they meant for marketing.
Because most fruits and vegetables could not be stored at the point of origin, cold storage facilities—particularly in central Midwestern locations like Chicago and Kansas City—allowed grower-shippers to keep excessive amounts of produce off the market and maximize market fluctuations. This led to the trend toward speculative buying, opening up a whole new way to sell.
“In short, being able to store part of a crop and market it later meant control,” summarized The Packer’s 100 Years of Produce: Remembering the 1900s. This type of thinking would change produce buying and selling in the decades to come.