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Go East, Young Men

How does food get to your door? We followed a truckload of strawberries to find out.

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RIGHTS: National Geographic

Shot by NG staff member Spencer Millsap on assignment.

Every morning, cool mist rolls from the Pacific Ocean onto Watsonville, a small town on the central coast of California where food comes reliably out of the ground thanks to a fine-tuned mix of climate and soil and seeds designed for big yields. Watsonville is also an industry hub. The town grows berries—miles and miles of fields of strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries—that find their way all over the world. Any crop can sit in a plane for a few hours to reach China or Dubai. Perhaps the more impressive story is the one about how berries end up in every major supermarket in America perfect, perky, and predictable.

A few months ago, my colleague Spencer Millsap and I decided we wanted to see the distribution system at work. We wanted to trace the massive journey food travels to reach markets thousands of miles away. And there was no better food to follow than the strawberry, one of the planet’s most perishable crops. Everyone around the world eats strawberries, but nobody eats more strawberries than Americans. So we’d literally follow a strawberry truck the entire journey, from the field in Watsonville to a supermarket in Washington, D.C. We’d try to keep up on a journey that plays out thousands of times a day, never seen but almost always on schedule. (From the archive: Read a 1974 magazine article about this journey.)

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Every spring, California produces berries for the entire United States. By virtue of an industrial distribution system, they arrive at peak ripeness in supermarkets.

On any given day there are around half a million trucks on American roads carrying something edible, shuttling back and forth in a finely choreographed dance to deliver fresh food on a deadline. Seasonality once mattered for produce, but refrigerated trucks and cargo tankers have extended the reach of crops like cherries, apples, and avocados. The availability of fresh oranges in New York City is less a sign of the fruit’s durability than an accomplishment of America’s transportation infrastructure.

For all the hand-wringing about “food miles” and “carbon footprints,” local crops account for only 4 percent of America’s food market. The rest is industrial—grown in a field somewhere and shipped to reach customers at peak ripeness. According to a study from Carnegie Mellon University, the average food travels more than a thousand miles from field to refrigerator. The lengthy trip is designed so quietly and with such precision that the end consumer doesn’t have to burden herself with anything other than whether $2.99 is a good price for cherries. (Learn more about food independence.)

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Karen and Tim Rife drive an 18-wheeler truck each week from North Carolina to California and back. Tim says he has logged three million miles on the road.

The first time Spencer and I met Tim and Karen Rife, they were in a warehouse the temperature of the Arctic. They stood beside their truck that was being loaded with pallets of strawberries. The Rifes take turns driving the same 18-wheeler. For long hauls across the country, trucks carrying perishables like berries have a team of drivers who alternate driving and sleeping, ten hours on, ten hours off, so that the truck barely needs to stop at all except for fuel and food. In his 17 years on the road, Tim has clocked three million miles. Karen, a former nurse, joined him eight months ago. Every week, they haul a 35-ton truck from their home in North Carolina to California and back, delivering somewhere on the East Coast. Staying on schedule allows them to spend one night each week in a real bed. They’re on the road the other six.

To adopt the same driving schedule, Spencer and I rented a Jeep Grand Cherokee and loaded up with dried fruit and trail mix. The cooler in our backseat was meant to mimic the cab of a semi, where truckers have actual beds and extras like a refrigerator, stovetop, and flat-screen TV. Our backseat—which we called the pod—was just an air mattress with a pillow and blanket. We agreed that whenever one of us became irritable with road fatigue, all the other would have to say was “Get in the pod.”

Join Dan and Spencer on their cross-country road trip. Click the play button to start.

Map of Watsonville, California


Time is of the essence when moving strawberries, and speed is the result of respiration. Strawberries breathe, inhaling and exhaling like any mammal or plant on Earth. A berry’s biggest threats are moisture and heat. As soon as a berry is cut off from its nutrient-delivering vine, it begins to decay, slowly suffocating and unable to combat the inevitable onset of mold. If it stays cold and dry, a strawberry can last about two weeks after it leaves the field. Getting strawberries from central California to the East Coast of the U.S. means maintaining the “cold chain,” industry lingo for the transfer between warehouses and trucks. The colder the berries (without freezing), the longer the shelf life. One break in the chain can end a strawberry’s edibility.

We watched berries being picked one Monday morning and then followed a small flatbed truck to a distribution center run by Driscoll’s, the biggest name in berry growing, whose berries (some conventional, some organic) are the product of extensive research to make them grow bigger, sweeter, and faster. Within two hours, Driscoll’s removes field heat from the berries by putting them next to refrigerating fans the size of jet engines. A machine wraps the pallet in plastic and sucks out carbon dioxide. That puts the fruit to sleep, unaware of the long trip ahead.

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Each shipment of food from California to the U.S. East Coast travels through at least nine states. Truckers usually decide their routes so long as they meet their deadline.

Within the first hour, we lost the truck. We got sandwiched between a few other semis, and Tim and Karen plowed ahead. They didn’t bother waiting but did call 30 minutes later to ask if we’d gotten lost. Tim rattled off a series of highway and exit numbers. He said we would make our first stop in Lake Havasu City, Arizona. Then he ended the call by saying between puffs of a cigarette, “We’ll see if you can keep up.”

Our car got better mileage, but the truck had a bigger fuel tank. An 18-wheeler can carry roughly 270 gallons of diesel, needing to refuel only four times to get across the country (each fill-up = $800). A trucker is lucky to get seven miles (11.2 kilometers) to the gallon—usually it’s more like five or six. A separate fuel tank runs the refrigerator in the back. If it ever turns off, the load will be refused by the grocery store at the end of the road.

Exactly 12 hours later, at 3 a.m., we crossed into Arizona and pulled in to a truck stop. Lake Havasu City, Arizona, is best known for London Bridge, which was brought in pieces from England in 1967 and later reassembled. One of the locals said we could skip a visit, especially in the middle of the night. For the best, since 20 minutes later Tim and Karen were drying off from their showers—one free with every fill-up—and ready for another long stretch.

The worst part of racing across the country is undoubtedly the time between 3 and 6 a.m. No matter how many years you’ve been driving, in the early hours of the morning it’s incredibly hard to stay awake. Heading eastward, you’re literally driving toward the dawn, trying not to think that if you just go a little faster, it’ll come sooner. At dawn, we reached the streets of Flagstaff, Arizona, suburban and golden. We passed a burger place called Bun Huggers and a post office. Inside a Starbucks, we met an energetic barista who asked how we were doing.

“We’re OK.”

“What do you mean just OK? You got through Monday and you’re surviving!”

Not now, pal.

After that, it became clear why Arizona and New Mexico are sometimes called the Saudi Arabia of solar energy. Both are large expanses of flat desert with the occasional rocky outcrop but not one shadow—even in the pod, where direct sunlight covered Spencer’s face while he tried to nap. Every few minutes he’d start to breathe heavily. Then we’d hit a bump or a dead animal, and he’d lift his head and look around.

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The cab of a semi is about the size of a small studio apartment. Spencer and I took turns riding shotgun for a few hours, chatting with Tim and Karen about life on the road. Tim, 44, got into truck driving for the freedom and the money. Karen, 40, joined him after working as a nurse and needing a change. Every year the couple takes a week or two of vacation. When your job is to keep moving, it turns out the best vacation is staying home.

The Rifes’ truck doesn’t always carry strawberries. When they travel east to west, they haul something nonperishable, like pickles or beans. From west to east, it’s fruit. I asked Tim if he ever thought about what he was hauling. He said the only time he thinks about the cargo is when it’s liquid. Every so often he carries barrels of glue. When you brake, the liquid pushes the truck forward then pulls it back like a slingshot.

But usually truckers can’t be picky. The load is the load. As long as it’s not overweight, it could be anything. That night, at a buffet in Amarillo, Texas, I asked Tim what the weirdest thing was he’d ever hauled. He thought for a minute.

“Probably turkey butts,” he said.

I repeated his answer.

“Oh yeah,” he deadpanned while chewing on a piece of chicken cutlet, “Just the butts.”

Our cargo this trip—26 pallets of strawberries—was easy, as long as the so-called reefer unit kept things cool. Based on a grocery store price of $4 per container, the truck was carrying about $200,000 worth of strawberries, all slowly suffocating. To safeguard the cargo, the trucking industry is subject to regulations that truckers both appreciate and lament. The Department of Transportation allows each person to drive ten hours a day. A solo driver has to spend more time at truck stops than on the road. Many drivers get paid by the mile, leading to an industry condition known as mileage hunger.

Sometime around hour 44, I called up Jeff Plungis, a transportation reporter for Bloomberg. Plungis tracks the trucking industry and the regulations that change for drivers. Most truckers usually get paid by the mile, bringing in about $600 to $800 for a cross-country drive. To judge that amount, one need consider the demands of working six days a week, day and night, sleeping on the side of the road and finding meals in musty truck stops—where the only fresh food is usually sitting in the trucks outside.

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A team of drivers can cross North America in just over two days, driving day and night and stopping only for fuel and food.

“America runs on cheap transportation, which makes the profit margins for these trucking companies very small,” Plungis told me. “It puts a lot of pressure on these truckers just to make a living.” When I told him that we were trying to follow a truck, he laughed and wished us luck. “I think one thing you’ll find is that no one in the system has any incentive to make truckers’ lives any easier.”

At the moment our lives weren’t at their peak, either. Tim could see our fatigue and offered us a five-hour break. When we showed up five hours later, we were actually two hours late. We were running on local time in Oklahoma City—where we were—and Tim and Karen were keeping East Coast time. Truckers run on the time zone they’re driving toward. We apologized in sheepish disbelief. Tim laughed; we got back on the highway.

We didn’t have a chance to mess with Texas or see winds sweeping down plains in Oklahoma. Spencer spent most of Arkansas in the pod while I kept alert with talk radio and music that referenced my soul. We paused at a truck stop in West Memphis, Tennessee, where Tim stood inside reading a manual about staying healthy on the road. Every year truckers have to take tests for mental and physical acuity to keep their licenses.

For all the hurry and the quick pit stops and the driving slightly over the speed limit, it’s also important that food not travel too fast. A truck that arrives early has to wait outside a food distribution center for its scheduled window of delivery. A store’s old grapes or bananas need to be sold before new ones arrive. If you’ve ever gone to a supermarket with a coupon for strawberries and left with a rain check instead, it means someone screwed up in the ordering department or a truck missed its deadline. (Related: How to Feed Nine Billion)

By hour 65, Spencer and I began to sing in falsetto. We took another shot of caffeine to head into the home stretch through Virginia and eventually into Maryland. Tim wanted to stop at another truck stop to “burn a little more time.” Inside, Karen was practically jumping up and down. She said that they’d gotten the papers for their next haul. In less than 48 hours they’d head back to California carrying, of all things, air filters. Neither of us could tell what she was so excited about, but apparently air filters are slightly lighter than fruit, which means the truck can travel faster and doesn’t have to run a refrigeration unit.

You’d think that the end of such a journey would be momentous, as if the end was in some way impressive. In reality, food distribution ends not with a bang but with the high-pitched staccato of a truck backing up to a loading dock in the middle of the night. Nobody is around to welcome its arrival or bring nourishment to the team that just crossed a continent in three days. Instead, all that came was a request over the radio to wait on the street with about 20 other trucks until our number was called.

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A store’s produce department features foods from all over the U.S. and the world, each item choreographed to appear when people are most likely to buy it.

The next day Spencer and I visited our local Whole Foods in Washington, D.C., to watch the final leg: the trip to the store where someone in an apron would load the berries onto a shelf. A woman who was texting on her phone picked up a clamshell box of strawberries. Someone else grabbed about six. Watching, I felt what I imagine parents feel when they send their kids to summer camp.

For an hour, we looked on as shoppers whittled down the pile. A produce clerk came over to chat and was surprised when we explained we had just followed those guys, 3,200 miles coast to coast. I had wanted him to have a new appreciation of all the produce he touches after knowing how much time and effort it takes to arrive in his store. But he hadn’t changed; only we had. Before we left, I asked him how often the store gets new shipments of berries. How often does this cross-country ballet of trucks play out, so people can have their fresh strawberries year-round? His answer was the rare combination of words that made me shudder with both fatigue and shock, as he said, with the directness of a produce clerk who cared only about the fruit he still had to stock, “Every day.”