CHARLES HALTON THOMSON
Armstrong State University
Truck farming was a particular farming practice that existed between the close of the 19th century until the mid 20th century. It consisted of farming small fruits or vegetables and using a truck to haul the crops to the market, shipyard, or train station. Interestingly enough, a gambler and a truck farmer had something in common: they both gamble, one with money, the other with crops. The truck farmer must be conscious of the market and know how many crops to sell to insure the restriction of a surplus which decreases the profits. This “agricultural poker game” 1 seems to have followed the same advice given by the musician Kenny Rogers on gambling: “You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away and know when to run.”2 In its history, truck farming was destined to thrive as a local and regional industry, yet never rising and maintaining at the national level due to the frailty generated by numerous factors in a “gambling” process.
Dr. Arminus Oemler highlighted the beginning and development of truck farming. The toll that “practicing medicine” had on Oemler’s health gave him the opportunity to undertake truck farming near the Savannah region.3 Oemler was the “chief authority on the subject” of truck farming, leading him to write the book, Truck Farming at the South, along with reporting on numerous agricultural ideas.4 Oemler was gifted in science as well as agriculturist thought, aiding him in his ideas of “diversified farming,” which was imperative for truck farming because of its crop rotating nature and the expanding urban markets. Oemler mentioned in his book that the industry of truck farming was derived from the extra crops that “local market gardeners” sold to make extra profits.5 Truck farming originated as a side note for farmers, a way to make some extra cash without fully investing in the practice; but to Oemler’s dismay, the sideline practice of truck farming was where it fit best, not on a national scale.
There were numerous aspects of truck farming that made it unique, such as the labor, crops, acreage, and transportation. The labor characteristic of truck farming was appealing because it avoided the use of sharecropping or tenancy, and farmers “hired the labor they needed when they needed it.”6 Also, truck farming provided farmers with a variety of crops to plant rather than rely solely on cotton. Despite the grower’s efforts of the watermelon, lettuce, cabbage, strawberries, and potatoes, “King Cotton” was never dethroned.7 The acreage of truck farming was different because it did not require vast amounts of acreage like cotton; it could be more profitable for the farmer to devote small amounts of acres to certain truck crops to gain the best profit. Truck crops “beat cotton 20 cents per pound,” and “tobacco at $1 a pound in the leaf.”8 Also, the return on truck crops per acre at times was higher than cotton, which made the “new industry” more appealing.9 Truck farming was highly reliant on effective and rapid transportation because of the fragility of the truck crops. Without efficient, fair, and safe movement of truck crops, the industry would collapse because of the “bruising and crushing in the handling.”10 As these aspects made truck farming unique, they also threatened the industry, which led to its demise as a national enterprise.
One problem that kept truck farming from achieving national longevity was labor issues. Oemler, being an expert in truck farming, advised that “The negro must be accepted as the only practical solution of the labor question, and, notwithstanding his instability, he is the best for many reasons.”11 Omeler’s depiction of blacks created racial issues that kept blacks as laborers. Oemler believed that blacks were less “intelligent” and less “energetic” workers, that whites and blacks should not be mixed as “field laborers,” and the need for “foreign help” was absent, because the will of the “emigrant” and his need for advancement would spur him to “better his condition.”12 In Arkansas, on the other hand, the strawberry required rapid harvesting; Arkansas depended on “non-local migrants,” meaning anyone and everyone was accepted to pick the strawberries as long as it was completed hastily.13 On top of a need for labor to “harvest crops, there was also a need for workers in industry-related factories,” because of the development of “canning plants and container factories.”14 Even though the social conditions for blacks did not improve, truck farming provided income through day wage labor and other incentives, such as “picking strawberries per qt for 1c, making crates for beans or peas per 100 for 1 dollar, and picking small peas or beans per bushel basket for 20c.”15 Even though these incentives gave workers reasons to work harder, the pay was not enough for the workers to provide for themselves. Workers were at the mercy of a need-based labor system that lacked stability, where “The railroad was dependent on large farmers for freight, and farmers depended on blacks to harvest crops.”16 Oemler’s insistency of black laborers as the best solution can be seen in Boca Raton, Florida, where “most agricultural entrepreneurs…relied primarily on black field workers to do farm work.”17 Racial prejudice and the refusal to accept immigrants dictated the labor system of truck farming, but at the time these actions were conventional. The black role in truck farming was the laborer, still oppressed, whereas whites were given the opportunity for economic success. Because the makeup of truck farming called for an unstable labor situation which left little room for financial security for laborers, coupled with its racist origins, truck farming would not achieve national longevity.
Another major issue for truck farming was effective transportation. Without rapid and secure transportation, truck farming would not be able to even be a regional enterprise, let alone a national one. At truck farming’s rise as an industry, another industry rose along with it, and that was the railroad. The relationship between the railroads and truck farmers was a complicated one. In order to “convince a railway that local truck cropping was extensive enough to warrant shipping services…associations encouraged production sufficient to guarantee the car-lot shipments desired by the railroads.”18 Also, the truck farming associations promised devoted “crop acreages” to truck farming.19 Once the railroads agreed to build railways in order to assist in truck crop transportation, more problems arose.
Even though water transport was appealing at first, it only benefitted coastal areas, which meant that “a well-organized and integrated railway system was essential.”20 The benefits of water transportation avoided the “jolting, dust, cinders, and heat” of the railroad due to the safety of the waters.21 Water transportation was more appealing to farmers with bulkier crops “such as watermelons,” because steamships were able to haul, whereas railroads were not developed enough.22 When cities were trying to promote others to join the industry of truck farming, they used water transportation as a positive factor. The city of Savannah boasted that one could benefit from “the finest fleet of coasting steamers in the United States” that shipped to New York three times a week and Boston and Philadelphia once a week.23 Truck farmers on the coast benefitted from water transportation because of the massive amount that can be shipped at one time, which goes directly to the northern market. Since the handling of the crops was so important, the issue of transportation was so “vital” that without developments in the transportation industry, truck farming would become extinct.24
Truck farming encouraged developments in the transportation industries of water and railway. One example is that truck farming stimulated the growth of the railroad, because by having enough truck crops that needed transport, they “justified the handling of it by the railroads.”25 The growth of urban markets promised a need for truck crops, which encouraged more reasons for “the railroads everywhere to seek the business.”26 Truck farming brought about the invention of “refrigerator cars,” making the speed of shipment irrelevant, as refrigeration kept crops ripe longer.27 The growth of refrigerated cars encouraged the creating of “ice-making facilities in the South,” whereas in the past ice was only attainable in the North.28 Another important development truck farming spurred for the railroad industry was the fixing of the “gauge” problem, which linked the North and South and eased transportation.29 Also, through the development of freight rates and shipping charges, they could make “additional revenue,” which encouraged an increase of freight rates because of the increased demand for transportation.30
More conflicts disrupting truck farming’s national success were the fragile and “highly competitive markets.”31 Since the market determined the price for the crops, farmers could get a high return or a low one. This created a panicky situation for the farmers, who trusted the railroads to deliver their crop on time and in good condition. The outcome for the farmers was not always a good one because “A glutted market, produce spoiled in transit, and unattractive packaging were factors which prevented growers from receiving top dollar.”32 With the nation promoting the industry of truck farming, the number of participants continued to increase because of the promised high profits, “large yields per acre” and “admirably adapted soil.”33 The problem that was spawned from an increased participation in truck farming was the “over stocking” of the markets.34 The promoting of truck farming as an industry capable of national use would be its demise, because truck farming was destined to be a supplemental industry. Truck farming characterized a vicious circle: the railroads demanded enough crops to justify shipment of freight, but in order for counties to produce enough crops, they needed more farmers, but the increase of farmers created a surplus of crops in the markets, and a surplus in the markets meant minimal profits for the farmers. This vicious circle would provoke the creation of truck farming associations that would attempt to fix these issues.
The creation of associations combated the individualistic ideals of a farmer, but it was a necessary compromise because truck farming could only survive collectively. Since truck farmers observed profitable gains with truck crops, but needed assistance with “transportation, coordination, packaging, and competition,” these issues were too great for one farmer.35 With the issue of freight rates, negotiating with railway companies, acquiring boxes and crates for shipment, and increased competition in the markets due to growing participation in the industry, truck farmers grew weary, but associations promised aid. Only when farmers needed the help of associations did they turn to them for assistance, but when the market profits for crops were high, “farmers tended to dispose of their produce through individual consignment rather than through cooperative selling.”36 This example shows that association ideology did not reign supreme, but that individualism, what roused a farmer to practice in the first place, triumphed. Associations advocated the surrendering of “individual freedom” for the “collective security” that associations promised, but associations were actually most concerned with regulating “crop movement.”37 Even though most associations were short-lived and minimally successful, the “Eastern Shore of Virginia Produce Exchange,” which controlled the majority of crop shipments, lasted over thirty years and consistently attained good profits for its members.38 Associations also brought the problem of surpluses in the market because of increased participation. While associations proved beneficial in some areas and individualistic ideology restricted associational progress, the issue of freight rates stands unequaled as the downfall of truck farming.
Railway companies set the freight rates that increased the stakes of the truck farmers’ gamble. Railroad companies made sure to keep their rates “unfair,” and they “often prevented southern producers from fully enjoying the fruits of their labor.”39 Companies could increase rates at will, even if the expected return for the crops were high, which demonstrates the oppression of the farmers and the power of the railroads. Appearing collaborative on the surface, truck farmers provided the goods, railways provided the transportation, but riddled by corrupt charges, freight rates haunted truck farmers. Truck farmers were at the mercy of the railroads, as they had no other choice but the railways for transportation of their crops. Maybe if truck farmers realized that the railroads would not have any freight to ship if it were not for their truck crops, then they would have been more successful in lowering freight rates, but the balance between the strength of the associations, the ideology of individualism, and the urgency to make a profit kept truck farmers from dismantling unfair freight rates. If farmers and the railway system developed a mutual respect for one another, then truck farming might have survived longer; but because of the farmer’s dependency on the railroad, companies grasped that chance and never released.
Truck farming arose as a sideline industry to over-average pursuits, and even in its heyday failed to achieve national prominence. Conventionally, cotton was the main “cash crop,” but farmers began experimenting with watermelons and found that the extra profits aided them in “the lean Summer months.”40 The practice of incorporating new crops during the “spring and summer months” proved profitable to the local towns, because “under the old cotton system,” business productivity was down, but with the practice of truck crops, “local merchandising” provided banks and businesses with new cash.41 The decline of truck farming, particularly in Georgia, can be observed in the records of cash income from 1946 to 1952, where the income from truck crops fell from $21,450 to $12,985.42 Georgia is just one example of truck farming’s virtual extinction that distinguishes the complexity of the enterprise. Despite the efforts from associations, city pamphlets, and railway companies, truck farming eventually collapsed. Since the “poker game” of farming lost its popularity, this shows that gambling with crops is not worth the potential gains, especially if the house fixed the deck.
Charles Halton Thomson, a fourth year student in the History Department of Armstrong State University. He is a member of Phi Alpha Theta.
Charles Halton Thomson, “The ‘Poker Game’ of Farming: The Development and Failture of Truck Farming as a National Agricultural Enterprise,” Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 1, no. 1 (Spring 2011).