Backhaul

Innovative sourcing in Long Island.

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Leave it to Long Island to change the world: The region that brought America the suburb and strip mall is helping to kick the long-distance food habit. With simultaneous soaring of fuel prices and ecological awareness, supermarkets seek to stock local.

Harbor View Foods, a produce dealer in Mt. Sinai, has an answer. It’s called the backhaul, a shipping innovation perfected in recent times by Wal-Mart, but previously mastered by the never-empty ships that moved sugar, rum and slaves among 17th century ports. But modern times find the backhaul concept being used for good.

Today a major obstacle keeping local crops out of grocery stores is that small farmers lack the resources- loading docks, trucks, driver- to deliver it. But the price of hauling a load of produce from California to New York just topped $10,000, 10 times what it cost in recent years. Which changes the calculus for everyone.

So Harbor View tweaked its delivery schedule and routes. Now its trucks deliver to a supermarket and then visit nearby farms, load up, backhaul to the warehouse, and then to the grocery store the next morning.

The farmers get a new market, the distributor eliminates empty trucks and gains a sought product. The supermarket stocks local produce, which customers crave. Everybody’s happy.

When Harbor View launched this program in 1999 as part of the Long Island Fresh campaign for King Kullen’s 60 stores, they backhauled 6,000 cases of vegetables. This year, they’ll move about 450,000 cases, grown by 23 growers from eastern Long Island.

And Harbor View will be signing up more farmers soon- including some who will be tearing up sod to plant more vegetables- as it just brokered a deal with A&P, the chain that controls some 400 stores in the tri-state area, including Pathmark, Waldbaum’s and the city’s 16 Food Emporiums. (Sen. Schumer helped broker the deal on behalf of his farmer constituents.)

“If our backhaul system were to spread nationwide, the savings would be astronomical,” says Joe Casa of Harbor View.

Driving a truckload of produce from California to New York burns 650 gallons of diesel compared with just 16 gallons burned by the same shipment backhauled on Long Island. Multiply that by the 1,200 trucks of produce Harbor View sources from Long Island, and that’s half a million gallons of diesel saved.

The economics trickle up and down the food chain. “Let’s say it costs $12 for a case of Brussels sprouts grown on Long Island and $22 for the same case from California,” Casa explains. “The farmer gets a little bigger piece of the pie: $15-$17. They get a few bucks more and the grocer can still sell for less than the $22 California case.”

What’s good for Long Island could be good for America. Representatives of C.H. Robinson, the largest produce supplier in the country, recently spent a few days observing Casa’s system at work.

“There’s so much bad news,” Casa said. “It’s nice to have something positive. I’m a businessman, but if I can also help farmers across the country, I’m a happy guy.”

Illustrations by Abby Denson. 

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Brian is the editor in chief of Edible East End, Edible Long Island, Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn. He writes from his home in Sag Harbor, New York, where he and his family tend a home garden and oysters. He is also obsessed with ducks, donuts and dumplings.