|This article appeared in the 1998 issue of the NJTPA Quarterly.
Nowhere in America is orange juice more avidly consumed than in the Northeast: NewJerseyans, New Yorkers, and others from Bangor, Maine to Bluefield, West Virginia drink it down at a rate twice as high as the national average. Yet since the nearest orange groves are 1,000 miles south of the meadowlands, the question naturally arises: How does so vast a quantity of this bracing elixir make its way here?
In fact, the story is a fascinating one — demonstrating just what technological ingenuity and intermodal transportation can do when it's a matter of delivering a popular item to an eager public. A significant part of the tale can be seen unfolding in the mile-long caravans of refrigerated freight cars, all painted a bright shade of orange, that clatter up from Florida to Jersey City's massive Tropicana distribution plant three days a week. With each arriving train begins the sorting and storing process that results in 3.6 million gallons of citrus refreshment making its war into countless Northeastern homes and restaurants each week - a figure representing 40 percent of the company's entire American market.
By employing both highway and rail transport and making its hi-tech Jersey City plant the epicenter of its Northeast distribution universe, Tropicana has made it possible for a single facility to relievemuch of the citrus thirst of a vast and populous region. It's a territory that reaches as far north as Maine's Canadian border, as far west as Pittsburgh, and as far south as Maryland's Chesapeake Bay.
The Last Drop
Like the sprinter who runs the anchor leg on a relay team, 29-year-old Nelson Couso represents the final element in the delivery system that transports Florida citrus from the fields to the plant, to the train, to the distribution center, to the shelves of retailers. Originally from Miami, he took over the route he now serves (Jersey City to Bergen County) from an older brother who spent "seven years building it up from scratch by soliciting new accounts." Those include not only supermarkets but convenience stores, cafeterias, bakeries, delicatessens, schools, cafeterias, courts, service stations, like Texaco and Amoco, and bagel shops. He is one of 15 contract drivers covering the New Jersey area as an exclusive distributor of Tropicana products.
How often does he call on his customers? "I have over 300 accounts," he says, " and I see most of them pretty close to once a week. But with my supermarkets Ð the Fine Fairs, the Associateds, the Pioneers. The Bravos, and the Latin supermarkets in Union City, Mi Bandera and La Roca Ð it's usually twice a week, with deliveries up to 300 cases at a time, (a case holds eight units, which can be anything from orange juice to cranberry juice to grapefruit juice)." How many stops a day? "Usually in the high thirties, he says," and sometimes in the forties– depending on how warm it is."
There's no free lunch in the trucking business, and so to speak, neither is there any free orange juice. Couso's truck is a 1987 model that cost him $35,000, and the obligatory cooling unit -required by the tropicana contract - was another $12,000. Fortunately, as a small businessman, he's had good luck with his customers. " I've only had one who gave me a bad check," he says. "But that's not surprising, because with all the personal contact over the years, you develop a real rapport." His routine, he points out, is tremendously simplified by Tropican's hi-tech system. He simply calls in by 3 p. m. the day before and gives his order. The dispatch manager then sends it on its computerized way, which means, among other things, that is passes through a scanner with the drivers identification number on it. "We come in," says Couso, "and it's ready - "shrink wrapped" (to avoid spoiling), on a pallet, and ready to be fork-loaded. The efficiency is amazing."
Couso is at the Tropicana loading dock five days a week at six-thirty in the morning, and his working day seldom ends before five-thirty or six in the evening. In the wintertime, that means beginning in darkness and ending in it. But in between it's all Florida sunshine- out of the truck and direct to you in convenient packaged form.
The orange juice story goes all the way back to 1492 and the landing of Christopher Columbus in the New World. He brought citrus seeds that were planted on the island of Haiti. In fewer than 100 years, by 1579, those seeds became a signature crop in Florida, but the states orange-growing industry did not really get going until the 1800s. The first growing season on record was 1887-88; Florida shipped nearly 1.5 million boxes.In 1893-94, there were 5 million boxes.
Florida's record-breaking year was in 1979-80 when 283.6 million boxes were shipped. Last year, Florida shipped 265.3 million boxes: 74 percent of the nation's total production.
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Harvest Moves North
The first step on the road to Jersey City begins as the harvest of 12,000 Florida citrus growers is loaded on open- topped trailers bound for one of Tropicana's three processing plants. The trailers are piled high with industry-standard, 90-pound boxes of oranges. But not all oranges that arrive at the plants end up as juice. Core samples taken outside the processing plant detertmine if the full load is accepted. In the processing plant located in Bradenton on Florida's Gulf Coast; more, than half a billion pounds of fruit are squeezed by automated machinery. This is Tropicanas headquarters and its largest processing plant. It's here that Tropicana cartons, 24 to a lot, are placed on wooden pallets and moved onto 65 refrigerated freight cars waiting on the rails outside the processing plant.
From Bradenton, a mile-long caravan makes its way along CSX tracks through Tampa, Richmond, and Washington, D.C. to Philadelphia, At that point, Conrail takes over for the last leg of the 1,100 rnile journey, hauling all those refrigerated cars into the siding at Jersey City's distribution center. There, 45 hours after leaving Bradenton, the pallets of packaged juice are removed and sent by conveyor into the warehouse cooler.
Elaborate time- and space-saving technologies in the 1991-designed plant facilitate the whole process. A high-rise warehouse with an automated storage retrieval system functions as the plant's nerve center. Inside, robots do all the work in the frigid warehouse darkness.
When the refrigerated rail freight cars arrive, the pallets of juice cartons are moved through the plant across a vast automated conveyor network. Computers scan bar codes describing the type of juice and its expiration date, and then move the pallets to one of 14 truck loading docks where they are shipped to customers or to smaller Tropicana distribution facilities. All this is accomplished in 24 hours!
In northern New Jersey, Tropicana contracts with 15 independent truckers who sell and deliver directly to supermarkets and mom-and-pop stores. Their compact, 22-foot-long trucks with the bright green and orange logo are a familiar sight throughout the region (see sidebar).
Obviously, Tropicana's distribution does not depend solely qn these 15 truckers. According to George King, Tropicana District Sales Manager who coordinates the 15 truckers, "A big supermarket chain will have its own regional distribution facility that supplies its stores, and so the chain will either use its own trucks or contract with independent truckers to pick up juice at the Jersey City plant."
The wide distribution web emanating from the Jersey City plant - together with the efficiency made possible by its hi-tech systems - has helped Tropicana remain the top seller of fresh orange juice in the country.
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In 1981, freezing weather in Florida reduced domestic juice production so dramatically that the American market opened widely for Brazilian orange juice. Similar freezing Florida weather in 1983, 1985; and 1989 only added momentum to the demand for Brazilian juice. But because the distance between Brazil and the United States takes 21 days travel by sea, and because fresh-squeezed juice takes up so much valuable cargo space, it was too expensive to transport fresh- squeezed orange juice between the two countries. That's where orange juice concentrate comes in. It's the product that remains after the peel, seed, and pulp have been removed and the fruit passes through a series of evaporators. With concentrate, a single ship can hold juice from a million Brazilian orange trees.
Tbe Port Authority of New York & New Jersey (PANY&NJ) has been able to persuade Brazlian orange concentrate producers to ship the majority of their cargo directly to Port Newark-Elizabeth. Before the 1980's and the unfortunate Florida cold snaps, Brazilian orange juice concentrate was packed in drums and shipped to Florida where it was mixed and blended with Florida concentrate. Only then did it make its way to the New York-New Jersey region -primarily by tank trucks.
In 1984, with partial PANY&NJ funding, an American firm, Internmerican Juice Company, Inc. constructed a bulk storage and handling facility for Cutrale, a major Brazilian exporter. Interamerican commissioned a $25 inillion vessel named Orange Blossom with twelve 1,000-gallon tanks to transport the frozen concentrate. lt is the first vessel ever custom-designed for orange juice. Since then, the fleet has expanded to include similar vessels: the Orange Star and the Orange Wave. Each time one of these tankers ties up in Newark Bay, the Interamerican Juice Company receives 2.4 million gallons of Brazilian concentrate.
In 1986, Cargill, another major concentrate importer, followed suit with its two giant ships, the Uchoa and the Bebedouro. Though the Uchoa has been sold, the Bebedouro continues to transport 2.2 million gallons to the Cargill Citro-America terminal on the Elizabeth channel. It takes 36 hours to pump the concentrate from the ship into Cargill's 16 refrigerated tanks, each more than, six-stories high, holding a million gallons.
The customers for concentrate - in contrast to Tropicana's "fresh squeezed" juice- are mainly dairies and other packagers who send tank trucks to pick it up at the port. Some buy 100 percent Brazilian conceptrate, while others ask Cargill or Interamerican to blend the Brazilian concentrate with concentrate trucked in from Florida. Products made from Brazilian concentrate appear with a wide variety of labels on store shelves.
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Vessels that bring orange juice concentrate from Brazil require marine channels adequately dredged for deepwater drafts. Greg Storey, Public Relations Vice President. New York Shipping Association, points out that Port Newark-Elizabeth harbor has a depth of only 18 or 19 feet on average. This is not adequate to accommodate deepwater vessels. The worldwide shipping industry needs 45 feet berths, he says. Yet, there is a virtual standstill on dredging in Port Newark-Eizabeth and some shipping lines have begun routing their cargoes to other ports.
Ed Dittman, Cargill Terminal Manager says the problem has become so severe, that the Bebedouro has to remain a substantial distance away from the dock. "the Port Authority has helped," he says, "by adjusting the dock and putting extensions on our hose. But we've had to hire a craine to move the hose extensions around "and it's a real problem. The dockside channel is just no longer as deep as it's supposed to be."
The reasons that Fort Newark-Elizabeth is not being dredged are complicated, but because of environmental concern and the lack of disposal options for dredged material contaminated by trace amounts of hazardous chemicals, New Jersey has not even done maintenance dredging. The need for deepwater drafts for modern super tankers goes unanswered while controversy still rages over contaminated dredged material.
Unless the dredging issue is solved, the fate of Fort Newark-Elizabeth is grave and consumers could keenly feel the effects. Lack of dredging is likely to mean that the trip from far-away orange groves to the corner grocery in New Jersey will drive the price of morning orange juice so high, it could become a rare treat and not a daily staple. It's something to think about at breakfast tomorrow.