Chefs may now be celebrities, farmers our food heroes, and small-batch producers worthy of culinary canonization. Yet the workers who make up one of the largest groups in the American food system rarely get a mention: truckers.
"When you sit down to eat at the table, give a little thought to how this food got to your house. In most cases, it's been in the back of a trailer, driven for some distance by one of America's truckers," says Todd Dills, senior editor of Overdrive Magazine.
Many of the drivers who haul produce and livestock across the country every day are small-scale owner-operators, says Dills. The model dates back to the 1930s, he says, when farmers would haul their own product.
These days, even the most orthodox locavores depend on farmers who depend on truckers to bring them seeds, tools, and machinery.
Truckers like Cody Blankenship, owner of 4BTrucking, who operates out of Waco, Texas. He grew up in a cattle family and started off hauling animals destined for steaks and burgers.
He says moving livestock is some of the hardest trucking work – and not just because of "the crazy shipping hours" or the risk of tipping over with a top-heavy, double-decker "bull wagon" carrying 25,000 pounds on each floor. It also requires knowing how to handle animals, he says, and understanding, for example, what might make cattle skittish and result in injury along the drive. Because if an animal gets trampled, "you're going to pay for half of whatever you lose," says Blankenship.
Nowadays, he tends to haul fresh produce like green beans. But that can take him a thousand miles from home. When the harvest begins, he heads to Florida to pick up, and as the season moves north, so does Blankenship, following the crop up through Maryland, Delaware, and into Pennsylvania.
That East Coast run can take this Texas driver away from his 4 and 6-year-old daughters for as long as five weeks at a time.
Which is why Blankenship says the black-eyed pea harvest closer to home is "probably one of my favorite things to do." When the spring and fall crops are ready, Blankenship hauls the Southern delicacy from south Texas, near Corpus Christi, to the cannery in Arkansas.
Among his various customers, Blankenship logs about a hundred thousand miles a year — the average for owner-operators. But hauling food is a very different life, he says, from the image most Americans have of truckers, of the "guys that run from the major cities down the interstate where they can stop at a truck stop."
Because they're moving farm goods, he says, "we're out in the country, and out in the middle of nowhere, so you've got to be prepared and a little self-sufficient."
And trucking requires driving big machines in some pretty tight spots in remote places, says Larry Frick. He hauls so much for the maple syrup industry in the U.S. and Canada that he's known as the "Maple Shipping King."
"I got to go a mile-and-a-half on a logging trail to get the maple syrup picked up in Vermont with a 50-foot trailer," Frick says. And then "there's another one in West Virginia, where I go seven-and-a-half miles on a little one-lane road."
The Salt caught up with Frick just after he'd finished a drop in Ohio. When I ask about his day, he begins by saying, "It started last night." He left Wausau, Wis., where his company, L&S Trucking, is based, and drove 300 miles to Chicago for two pick-ups. As we talk, he's on his way to New York, then up to Vermont, where he'll reload with cargo headed back to Wisconsin before going south just over the Massachusetts border, where he'll pick up loads to drop in New York, Ohio and Michigan.
This kind of schedule means time is a problem for a long-distance trucker. Not the hours sitting alone in the cab, but the hours wasted while waiting on unprepared clients.
Because owner-operators are typically paid based on a percentage or by the mile, not by the hour, "there is no financial incentive for those who ship or receive a truck to make efficient use of that driver's time," says Norita Taylor of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. So truckers, she says, "are treated like rolling warehouses" and are often kept waiting hours on end at loading docks.
As a safety measure, federal regulations require drivers to work no more than 14 hours in a 24-hours period before taking a 10-hour break. And once the clock starts ticking, it doesn't stop, so sitting and waiting eats into the drive time, and that eats into the profits.
For Blankenship, "Trucking is not a 9-to-5 job. It's really a 24-hour operation."
Which makes Labor Day just another day for drivers.
"I'll be working all weekend," says Frick. "I probably won't get home until Monday night or Tuesday. And then I've got to get back out East straight away."
He does, however, hope to be doing his own holiday grilling — using the George Foreman inside his truck cab.
Anne Bramley, a writer and independent scholar based in Norwich, U.K., is the author of Eat Feed Autumn Winter.