When you think of a tractor trailer, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?
I usually think of the frustration I feel every apple season when giant trucks jam up our roads pulling in and out of orchards. Or the nervousness that makes me grip the steering wheel tighter as I squeeze past a truck on a single-lane road.
But here in Yakima, the trucking industry is vital to our agricultural economy. I decided to learn more about these monstrous machines and the men and women who drive them.
Growing up in the fruit bowl capital of the U.S., I’ve been around tractor trailers and truckers my whole life. I love witnessing the thrill my kids get from waving at passing truckers and being rewarded with a friendly horn blast.
My uncle had been a trucker for over 30 years before recently retiring, so I’ve heard plenty of firsthand stories about the hardships and adventures they experience on the road.
It’s Not Just About the Journey…
Recently, I’ve been curious about a part of the trucking industry I’d never been exposed to – the transportation of food.
I think most people never consider where their food comes from. But I live in an agricultural region that produces everything from apples to hops. I decided it was time to move past my assumptions and frustrations and start learning about what all those trucks are doing in my city.
To learn more, I talked to my friend Todd, who’s been in the industry for 31 years. Since starting his own trucking business in 2012, Todd has been transporting fruit and vegetables from Washington to Oregon and back every week by way of the San Francisco Bay and Salinas, California.
It turns out, trucking is not easy work.
All truck drivers must have a CDL (commercial driver’s license) and pass written exams. Truckers drive for long hours, in various environments, and must be able to maintain their trucks as well as maneuver them through all sorts of terrifyingly tight spaces.
Todd also made one thing clear – truck driving is not the bottom of the barrel like most people think.
Most truck drivers are clean and shower daily on the road. They’re not the gruff, unkempt slobs that pop culture would have us believe.
Despite enduring stereotypes and time away from his family while on the road, Todd loves his job. He gets to be his own boss and he’s learned the importance of the work that he does. Personally, I forget how food gets to the store and who transported it there, and I often don’t see truck drivers as a crucial link in the food chain.
It’s About the Destination
I didn’t know this, but very little fresh produce in the U.S. gets shipped by any other method than trucking.
On his route and depending on the season, Todd transports Yakima apples, pears, peaches, nectarines, and cherries to the San Francisco Bay and Oakland, California produce markets. He then picks up lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, other leafy greens, tomatoes, and yams from Salinas and transports the produce back up to Portland, Oregon or greater Seattle, Washington.
Salinas is a major part of Todd’s truck route. California’s Salinas Valley is situated in the central coast region of California, and it’s one of the most productive farming regions in California.
It’s known as the “Salad Bowl of the World,” with 60-70 varieties of vegetables and more than 80% of the nation’s lettuce being grown there. Every day during the summer, 2,500 truckloads of fresh produce leave the Salinas Valley, heading all over the U.S. and around the world. Todd’s truck is just one of many, but he knows how important his role is.
Everybody Needs to Eat
To transport produce, Todd has to keep his truck very clean. The trailer must be “smell free,” with a working refrigerator unit usually set between 34 and 36 degrees. The turnaround time for a load is also extremely quick – usually 2 days or less.
Fresh-market crops like lettuce need to be trucked to their destination in a hurry. The time to harvest, wash, package, and load the produce into a truck can take less than 12 hours. The focus is on getting the crop to its destination quickly to preserve as much shelf life as possible.
Despite all the organization and precautions, severe weather can really strike a blow to the trucking industry.
Snow, flooding, tornadoes, and storms present huge challenges for truckers to work through in order to get their loads to the destination on time. They always map out a route, and they always have to be prepared. Everyone needs to eat!
On the Road Again
Unfortunately, Todd doesn’t get to benefit from transporting all of that fresh produce when he’s on the road. He mostly eats sandwiches, fruit, and small snacks in his truck. Occasionally there’s a restaurant close by, but not many exist around the shippers and receivers he arrives at. You can’t just pull a truck and 53-foot trailer in anywhere, after all.
The next time I’m trying to pass a slow-moving tractor trailer on the highway or I’m feeling the strain of waiting in traffic during apple season, I’m going to remind myself of everything I learned from talking to Todd.
I definitely have a newfound appreciation for the trucking industry and the produce I pick up at my local grocery store. More likely than not, I have a trucker like Todd to thank for my fresh fruit and veggies, not to mention a host of other food products. But that’s a different story for another time.