Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Truck Farming in Arkansas: A Half-Century of Feeding Urban America

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Truck Farming in Arkansas: A Half-Century of Feeding Urban America

Article excerpt

FOLLOWING THE CIVIL WAR ARKANSAS partook of a new agricultural enterprise emerging in the United States-the production of fresh vegetables and small fruits for primary consumption in the year-round urban markets of the nation. Because of their annual production cycle and seasonal export to distant markets, these crops should not be confused with either orchard crops, which required long-term investment, or with the products of market gardening raised for sale in local markets. Truck farming, as this new enterprise was known, was in part a product of the industrial revolution, which produced the transportation system and the markets necessary for the movement and sale of crops. In the years following 1865, a fast and efficient national railway system developed, enabling the successful transport of perishable fruits and vegetables over long distances. Growing urban populations provided the markets. During the single generation between 1860 and 1890, the urban population of the United States more than tripled from 6.2 million to 22.1 million.1 Concurrently with this development, a shift in dietary habits also encouraged truck crop production. After the Civil War the inhabitants of cities began to consume an increasing quantity of small fruits and vegetables.2

Southern agricultural producers responded to this accelerating consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables. Their attention was drawn to truck crops by more than increased demand and the greater ease of transport offered by railroads, however. Declining prices for cotton also provided an incentive for change. From the mid-1870s to the late 1890s, southern cotton farmers experienced a disastrous drop in price from an average of nearly eleven cents a pound to just under six cents a pound.3 The new and expanding urban market for fresh vegetables and small fruits thus attracted farmers throughout the South. In 1883 a Mississippian reminisced that "apprehensive of poverty [in 1875] if [I] continued cotton planting [,] I concluded to experiment with peas, and ordered a bushel of seed."4

King Cotton found himself competing with the likes of King Strawberry, King Spud, King Lettuce, King Cabbage, and King Celery.5 The agricultural census of 1900 suggests the extent of turn-of-the-century southern participation in truck farming. The southern contribution to the national production of small fruits and vegetables was 130,918 acres out of 667,150 or nearly 20 percent.6 This census also identified 118 "canning, pickling, and trucking or market-garden centers in the United States."7 Thirty-five of these centers were located in the South. Among these were two in Arkansas: one in the northwestern portion of the state encompassing Crawford, Johnson, and Sebastian Counties, and the second a scattering of counties elsewhere in the state, including Hot Springs, Lawrence, and White.8

Clearly, low cotton prices had encouraged Arkansans, like many of their fellow southerners, to experiment with truck crops. Closely following the regional average, the price of cotton in Arkansas plummeted during the 1880s and 1890s to less than five cents a pound in 1894. 9 It was during this period that significant truck-crop acreages appeared. The 1890 census, taken before accurate truck-crop statistics were available, used the Irish potato as the "best index to the rate of development of the trucking industry in the South." This census noted a significant increase in Irish potato acreage for Arkansas from 5,246 acres in 1889 to 12,871 acres in 1899.'o In Crawford County, the local press reported that "something over 200 [railroad] carloads" of potatoes were shipped in 1895. 11

This was just the beginning. A combination of local and government figures establishes that, beginning in the 1890s and for half a century thereafter, truck farming was a significant and viable agricultural industry in certain portions of the state. Before the United States Department of Agriculture [USDA] began in 1920 to publish official statistics for the number of railway car-lot shipments exported from producing-region shipping centers, the local press was the primary source for information on Arkansas truck farming. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.