An Art Tour of Food Logistics

An Art Tour of Food Logistics

If you want a new experience while visiting an art museum, try going as a food logistics nerd.

Recently, I had this pleasure at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the home of such luminaries as John Singleton Copley and John Singer Sargent. The two ladies at the front desk, each sporting particularly colorful eyeglasses — one in flamingo pink and the other in cerulean blue — slowly warmed up to my request and began sketching a path through the museum on the printed floor plan. “Go to the Americas room and look for jars. Then go to the Classical Art rooms and see if you can find amphorae,” they offered, visibly surprised that they had discovered something.

For my part, I wanted to hunt down Winslow Homer’s images of fishermen lugging halibut.

Here’s what I found.

The Fog Warning, Winslow Homer

Winslow Homer’s The Fog Warning, is the dark, foreboding image of a solitary fisherman looking over his shoulder at the oncoming fog bank, his boat weighted down in the stern by two huge halibut. Does he make it home? There’s a schooner on the horizon in the distance. Does he know the ship? Does he reach them? His boat is a fishing dory, a flat-bottomed rowboat that was designed to carry large loads of fish caught at sea.

Salem Harbor, Fitz Henry Lane

Fitz Henry Lane, an American painter known for his ethereal use of light, lived in Gloucestershire, Massachusetts, where images of ships and the fishing industry surrounded him. Salem Harbor, painted in 1853, was the center of the China trade that brought not only silks but also tea from halfway around the world. Square-rigged schooners and other working boats fill the harbor, unloading cargo into the Salem warehouses.

Whaler in the Ice, Chopping Out, William Bradford

You can feel the chill of the Arctic wind in William Bradford’s Whaler in the Ice, Chopping Out. The black and white charcoal image illustrates the slow, cold journey whalers take as they hunt spermaceti and other whale oil to fuel American households and their cooking stoves.

The Wreck of Ancon, Loring Bay, Albert Bierstadt

Albert Bierstadt, the master of romantic, heroic American landscapes, recorded the demise of the ship Ancon, which was stranded on a ledge in Alaska with its cargo of canned salmon. This 1869 oil painting, The Wreck of the Ancon, Loring Bay, captures the fragility of 19th-century food logistics with ship’s cargo at risk of weather, ledges and pirates.

Greek Vessels

The rooms filled with Greek antiquities included numerous jars and amphorae that held food, water and wine for various purposes — some for rituals, others purely utilitarian. One two-handled amphora from the Archaic Period (540-520 BC) gleamed from one case, displaying figures and grapes all the way around its midsection. As with most Greek vessels, the surface tells an elaborate tale of gods and humans. On this amphora, you see Dionysus (the Greek god of the grape harvest and winemaking) drinking wine while satyrs make more. The amphora illustrates the process of winemaking, including each of the various steps between the vine and your plate. Other, less ornate amphorae transported oil and wine across the Mediterranean in ships’ holds.

Food for the Dead

And finally, food transported to the dead is a food supply chain familiar to cultures that believe in an afterlife. The Egyptians assembled elaborate kits for those who departed from their world to the next. These stone containers, often depicting the food encapsulated within, contained the necessary sustenance to survive the next world. Called “food cases,” they were filled with provisions such as beef ribs and bread, sometimes wrapped in the same materials as the individual embalmed inside a sarcophagus. Notice that this one has a duck carved on the exterior, suggesting that a duck breast awaited the departed.

Imagining a museum as a repository of food logistics stories turned up some surprises and even more reminders that transporting food around the world has been going on at least since the Egyptians packed food for the afterlife. Whether in this life or the next, the movement of food can be a combination of art and science, utility and aesthetics. I can’t wait to visit another museum with food logistics goggles.

Waste Not

Waste Not

Food waste is a messy subject. What can one person’s efforts to record her scraps teach us about reducing our footprint?

Logi, a mythological Nordic warrior, won an medieval eating contest that involved consuming a tray of meat and bones — and the tray itself. (The tray was made of bread in those days, so it’s not such a big deal as it appears.) His gluttonous display was typical of the way men proved they were, indeed, men. The more food consumed, the more powerful the man.

For centuries, now, eating enormous quantities of food has been as necessary among the elite — who use consumption as a marker of social status — as it has been among the poor, who never know when the next famine will occur. The abundance or scarcity of food is one of the world’s paradoxes. We eat a lot, though not quite like Nordic warriors. And at the same time, we waste a lot.

Food waste tops the list of concerns for food system reformers these days. And why not? The UN Food and Agriculture Organization claims that we waste about 1.3 billion tons per year of edible parts of food, or about 4o percent of the food we produce. That’s enough to motivate anyone to reconsider what goes into the trash bin after a meal. The 2013 FAO report, “Food Wastage Footprint, Impacts On Natural Resources,” dissects the mountain of food waste generated each year. Perishable fruits and vegetables occupy much of that mountain for obvious reasons. In spite of advances in food preservation, we haven’t yet found the right technology for eliminating perishability.

“…we waste about 1.3 billion tons per year of edible parts of food, or about 4o percent of the food we produce…”

But before wringing our hands, we should wonder about what constitutes “food wastage,” as the FAO calls food waste. We hear about food waste in the media and at events that reference the same FAO report. As much a consequence of recirculating Internet data, this reliance on a single source can’t be our only source for the war on waste. If the topic is so fundamental to improving our food system, should we be evaluating a range of studies from multiple perspectives? Even without reading the UN report, we might wonder about packaging and about all the leaks along the food supply chain where food becomes waste. Did the FAO really go to a significant number of landfills and weigh all the different types of waste? Might there be other methods for finding food leaks and breaks the food distribution system?

The whole topic is messy. But even without knowing the exact amount of food waste in our food system, I imagine we’d all agree that the problem could use a big solution.

But overwhelming problems often numb our ability to act individually. Wondering what just one person might contribute to heap of wasted resources, I spent a week photographing my food wastage footprint. I became so self-conscious about my food waste that I began eating more trimmings and food before taking a photo, simply because I was embarrassed by the amount of waste that was about to become public record. Being shunned by one’s peers because of an oversized waste footprint could become the next neurosis requiring treatment by modern psychiatrists.

One day’s waste print.

While I worked to overcome the fear of disapproval, I saw that my food waste footprint had grown to the size of Sasquatch by the end of the week. This wasn’t a complete surprise, since the amount of food that I was required to buy in the grocery store was more than one person could eat in a week; remains of a head of lettuce and a quart of milk were all spoiled by the end of the week. Perhaps this is an admonition to never eat alone. More fun and less waste.

While my experiment wasn’t life-transforming, taking the photos did tell an interesting micro-story about one person’s waste footprint.

So what are the takeaways?

I wonder if there is a better way for single people to buy and prepare food. Would more single-serving packaging alleviate the problem? Lately I’ve noticed “Ready to Serve Brown and Wild Rice” from Riviana Foods in packages of two servings, ready to microwave. It might help, but packaging still needs a solution: even my single-serving yogurt leaves me with a foil top and plastic container at the end of the snack.

Would growing my own food lessen the amount of waste, since I could pick just what I needed for a meal and compost the remains each day? Maybe, but that would require a lifestyle change for many of us.

How about portion controls? When I ate out, the waste trail increased. Restaurants, unless you eat exclusively at over-priced, small-plate restaurants, typically serve more than you can eat. In my case, a sandwich was served with a side of coleslaw, which I don’t eat and didn’t see on the menu.

While my micro-experiment was both fun and enlightening, the exercise missed some of the bigger-picture considerations. How can we see beyond the FAO report? Bjorn Lomborg joins the United Nations Food and Agriculture to emphasize the amount of food wasted in the global food system. Lomborg moves beyond the statistic to consider systemic solutions, such as the need for improvements in our global transportation infrastructure. Ronald Bailey’s book The End of Doom points out that we have a highly productive food system that will produce enough food in the future. There’s enough food, it seems, just in the wrong places.

So how do we get all the food to all the right places in the right condition: unspoiled, nutritious and tasty? We could use a focused, concerted effort to address distribution and minimize food left in the field, on the loading dock and in the waste bins of food processors. Those efforts include new packaging, tracking and transport technologies. Everyone, from chefs to consumers, needs a behavior-changing incentive to prepare, serve and consume food in smaller quantities. The move toward selling food in smaller-portioned packages is just a small step in that direction.

These innovations, many of them in the works now, will do much more to lower the amount of food waste than anything revealed in my photos. But, hey, try it yourself. Take your cellphone and snap a few post-meal images of your food trail. What do you see?

Startup Spotlight: 2017 Prize Finalists Keep Sparking Change

Startup Spotlight: 2017 Prize Finalists Keep Sparking Change

Whether they were newly hatched companies or enterprises needing a little help getting to the next level, competitors in the 2017 Food+City Challenge Prize are still going strong. We checked in with several finalists to hear about their progress.

Evaptainers logo

Refrigeration is an invention of the supply chain. You can’t safely transport perishable food without it (unless you employ centuries-old preservation tactics like salt curing or pickling). But in the 100 years since refrigeration technology was invented, it hasn’t changed much, and it almost always requires electricity to work.

In many developing countries, electricity is not assured, and many people suffer from food insecurity because they can’t save or preserve enough food. Nearly half of the produce grown in Africa goes to waste before it reaches the consumer. Evaptainers, a Boston- and Morocco-based startup, has reimagined refrigeration technology and is bringing it to those who need it most.

Evaptainers’ refrigeration systems don’t run on electricity. Instead, they use sunlight and water. A collapsible box, small enough to sit on a countertop, cools food the same way humans cool themselves — through evapotranspiration. In other words, when water evaporates, cooling occurs.

This simple yet revolutionary technology has been garnering lots of attention and gaining traction. Following the capital infusion that came with winning the gold prize at the 2017 Food+City Challenge Prize, the company went on to win more awards: One award at the pitch competition Foodbytes! in San Francisco and a United Nations innovation award at the Seeds and Chips global summit in Milan. They have also been featured in Ag Funder News, The Boston Business Journal and TechCrunch. Their acceleration continues, with support from LAUNCH Food and funding from USAID, and they are finalizing the production of 400 prototypes slated for a field trial in Morocco this summer. A commercial launch is likely in 2018.

In addition to vital funding, a key result from their experience at Food+City’s Challenge Prize has been relationships with other startups.

“We met startups working on different aspects of food and food waste and have learned so much from our conversations with them about the arduous yet fruitful process of growing a small social impact business,” says chief strategy officer Serena Hollmeyer Taylor. Starting a company is often a struggle, as Prize competitors know. The opportunity to interact with others going through similar challenges, who can share knowledge and lessons learned, is a powerful outcome of Prize.

Evaptainers‘ electricity-free refrigeration device, made especially for use in developing countries where the electricity grid is unreliable. Using evapotranspiration, the box keeps produce and other products cool and prevents spoilage.

Nüwiel logo

The Last Mile is a supply chain concept ripe for innovation. It is often the most expensive and complicated leg of the supply chain journey for food products. Narrow roads, city traffic and generally limited space contribute to the challenge of this final stage in the supply chain. Large, cumbersome trucks have traditionally been the go-to mule — and scapegoat — for these deliveries.

Nüwiel, a startup in Hamburg, Germany, has taken on that challenge. The company created electric-powered bicycle trailers specifically for last-mile delivery in urban settings. Their technology knows exactly when to accelerate, decelerate and brake to make last-mile delivery via bicycle more efficient and realistic. In addition to improving delivery efficiency and reducing road traffic, the bike trailers don’t contribute to the pesky urban problems of noise and air pollution.

After winning the bronze prize at the 2017 Food+City Challenge Prize, Nüwiel used the attention to accelerate their development.

“The Prize has certainly helped us a lot. We received significant media attention, getting mentioned not only in Germany but also in the U.S., U.K., Austria and Italy,” says co-founder Natalia Tomiyama.

In the months since Prize, Nüwiel has been accepted to a second stage at the biggest trans-European accelerator, Climate KIC; they’ve scheduled pilot projects with four different partners; attended South By Southwest; updated the design of the trailer; built a prototype; and were selected as to pitch and exhibit at the CUBE Tech Fair in Berlin. Last summer, they got out of the building to bike across Europe — from Hamburg to Italy, passing through the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Spain — and test the durability of their trailer.

Nüwiel’s powered trailer for making urban food deliveries; hooked up behind a bike.

Phenix logo

The issue of food waste is under attack on multiple fronts. Entrepreneurs are coming up with new ways to use food waste, while public awareness campaigns aim to induce behavior change. Some progressive governments have even joined the battle. In France and Italy, laws ban food waste and remove barriers to food donation. This means that French supermarkets can’t throw out unsold produce. While well intentioned, the law leaves French groceries in a bind, with hundreds or thousands of pounds of food that can neither be sold nor thrown away.

Enter Phenix, a 2017 Food+City Challenge Prize finalist, which is addressing that logistical issue in their home country of France. Phenix’s digital platform connects grocery stores with nonprofit organizations whose mission is to feed the underprivileged and food insecure. They organize pick-ups and drop-offs and connect surplus supply with demand in real time, employing their fleet of vehicles to transport the food. Phenix is saving 20 tons of food before it hits landfills, while supplying their charity partners with 27,000 meals — every day.

Since Prize, Phenix was a finalist for the French American Entrepreneurship Award (FAEA). At its headquarters in Europe the company has continued to expand into new regions in France and by finding new segments of the market.

Phenix’s mission goes beyond food waste, which is why they have created a lab to incubate new projects around the circular economy, a system that challenges the more linear system of make-use-dispose by inventing ways of maximizing the value of a resource and regenerating it into another purpose when it reaches its functional end. So instead of trashing unused food, for instance, a circular economy maximizes value buy feeding it to people in need or, when that’s not possible, transform it into a different usable product such as nutrient-rich compost. A planned grocery store with shelves full of strictly unsold products will serve as an example of of this model.

Despite similarities in the ways France and the U.S. treat tax deductions for donations, operating in the U.S. can be difficult because of regulation around food expiration dates. “France has a very detailed and clear framework on what expiration dates mean and what can be donated,” says Sarah Lenoble, director of Phenix USA. “Whereas it is much less clear in the U.S., where there is no real regulation on expiration dates, and every state can have its own regulation.” Phenix is searching for the right partner to launch a pilot program in the U.S.

Phenix workers and partners pick up and recycle or reuse uneaten foods in France.

A worker from Phenix organizes supplies for reuse.

Rise Products logo

There’s a movement brewing that includes turning surplus bread into beer, aquafaba — aka chickpea cooking liquid — into vegan mayonnaise and food waste into new packaging and products. With all the attention food waste is getting, it makes sense that “upcycling,” the process of using a discarded material and creating a valuable product with it, is quickly gaining traction in the marketplace.

Rise Products takes unspent barley from microbreweries in Brooklyn and uses a proprietary process to turn it into flour, which can be used to make the same products as traditional wheat flour. And they’re working with well-known Brooklyn bakery Runner and Stone to develop recipes for all kinds of carby treats. The flavor of the flour Rise produces varies based on what type of beer was produced from the grain — flour from ales tastes nutty and light, while porters create a dark and rich flour that smells like chocolate.

By participating in events like the Zero Waste Food conference and the Make It in Brooklyn Pitch Contest, in which it was selected as a top-five finalist, Rise has firmly entrenched itself in the upcyling-to-beat-food-waste movement.

Since winning a silver award at the 2017 Food+City Challenge Prize, Rise has continued to gain momentum. They completed their time at the Food-X accelerator, gaining valuable mentorship and connections, and came away with a prototype for a production facility. From their spot in the Brooklyn Navy Yard as part of the 1776 Accelerator, Rise is working with the New York Economic Development Board to develop their own production plant.

Making the most of the Prize experience, they have stayed in touch with other startups from the competition, as well as their mentor, Ashley Shaffer of IDEO.

“Participating was an awesome experience for us, especially since we met our mentor, Ashley. We’ve kept in touch with her and with the other participants since then, even meeting some of them recently in Milan during the Seeds & Chips conference,” says COO Ashwin Goutham Gopi.

Bags of ready-to-use Rise Flour, made from spent brewery grains.

Smallhold logo

Some say the future of agriculture is in cities. As the world’s urban population continues to expand, it is easy to imagine how growing food in nontraditional areas, like skyscrapers and downtown warehouses, will benefit the food system. But while vertical farms, urban and rooftop gardens, and shipping container farms are all making progress in the area of urban farming, none has a foothold quite yet.

Distributed farming is the latest idea in this sector. The process enables a business or restaurant to re-route the last food mile and finish growing a product in the location where it will be consumed.

Brooklyn-based Smallhold is leading the charge for distributed farming. At the 2017 Food+City Challenge Prize, co-founders Andrew Carter and Adam Demartino pitched the idea of distributed farming through restaurant mini-farms that produce mushrooms. Today they’re cultivating several unusual varieties of mushrooms, from lion’s mane to yellow and pink oyster, and they plan to expand into other products like leafy greens soon. Top chefs and restaurants in New York are taking notice and endorsing the products.

Since Prize, three new restaurants have come become clients, welcoming Smallhold farms into their kitchens. Smallhold also sells their products directly to grocery stores and intends to use connections from Prize to pursue expansion in major retail stores.

“Food+City introduced us to some amazing stakeholders and thought leaders from places like Whole Food and Walmart, and we are extremely happy we attended,” Carter says. The company is gaining momentum in the tech circles as well. The team benefited from the mentorship and guidance of the TechStars Boston program, which wrapped up in May 2017. They have also seen their team grow 100 percent since Prize and have expanded their farm with a custom-built shipping container to grow more mushrooms.

Mushrooms grown by Smallhold.


Innovation in food takes all forms, from making improvements to pallets to creating new avenues for delivering food or designing packaging that increases the shelf life of a food. Since 2015, we’ve hosted a challenge prize for startups in the food space that are challenging our notions of how the supply chain works. The 2018 Challenge Prize will be awarded on March 13, 2018. Be sure to visit to watch this year’s entrants become finalists and compete at SXSW Interactive 2018.

Food Movers: Lock, Stock and Barges

Food Movers: Lock, Stock and Barges

Growing up playing in the alluvial soil of farms along the Mississippi River, I gleaned a vague notion of the importance of barges. These flat-bottomed, square-ended boats — whether towed, pushed or self-propelled — are used primarily to haul cargo. My granddad owned a small red and white one that was rusty around the edges. He used it to transport tractors, farm supplies and crops back and forth from his island farm in the Mississippi River.

As a youngster, I often visited Lock & Dam 24 in Clarksville, Missouri, to watch the low-slung hopper barges loaded with Midwestern grain travel through the locks with the help of towboats. Contrary to their name, the towboats gently push — rather than pull — the barges into the lock, a 110-foot-wide and 600-foot-long concrete chamber built between the riverbank and the dam. Locks, along with dams, create a step-like system that helps vessels navigate the changing elevations of the river.

There are many types of barges: A dredging barge is basically a clamshell bucket excavator on a floating platform. In China’s Grand Canal, self-propelled barges sport a cabin and motor at the back. Decades ago, sail-powered Thames barges plied England’s coasts and rivers. Barges are even used as ocean-going landing pads for SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets.

But the hopper barge that has become integral to the modern food system, especially in the United States, is a 200-foot-long, 35-foot-wide, 13-foot-deep boat with a large fiberglass cover. These barges are perfect for transporting bulk, dry cargo like grain or coal. They have no engines. Instead, they are designed to be lashed together with a web of steel cables into groups of two to 70 barges, known as tows, and pushed by a single towboat.

Towboats vary in size depending on how many barges they will be pushing and how and where they will be operating. Most are diesel-fueled and include a pilothouse that rises three to four stories above the deck, a kitchen, and quarters that house a crew of eight to 10 people. The average crew includes a captain and a pilot who alternate six-hour shifts in the pilothouse, a cook, a mate, four deckhands and an engineer. Crews serve 28-day stints, usually taking a four-week break before returning to the river.


Hopper barges haul corn, soy, wheat, fertilizer and other bulk dry goods, primarily on the Mississippi, Ohio and Illinois Rivers. But they don’t travel alone. The standard tow on the Upper Mississippi is 15 barges, or five rows of three barges abreast, a bundled mass of vehicles that’s too long to go through the lock at one time.

The solution? Unbundle. Once in the lock, the first three rows of barges are disconnected. After the gates close on a southbound tow, the emptying valve under the lock opens. The water and thousands of tons of metal and cargo descend 15 feet. The process repeats for the towboat and remaining barges.

Each of those 15 barges can carry between 1,500 and 1,750 tons of dry cargo — enough wheat to bake 2.5 million loaves of bread, or one loaf for every person in Houston. A standard 15-barge tow can haul enough wheat to fill 240 railcars or 1,050 trucks, enough to provide a loaf of bread for every resident of New York, New Jersey and Virginia combined. But the wheat on the barges steaming down the Mississippi is likely bound for Europe or Asia, rather than New York.


Each barge can carry between 1,500 and 1,750 tons of dry cargo — enough wheat to bake 2.5 million loaves of bread, or one loaf for every person in Houston. A standard 15-barge tow can haul enough wheat to fill 240 railcars or 1,050 trucks, enough to provide a loaf of bread for every resident of New York, New Jersey and Virginia combined.

Examples of tow configurations, pushed by a single. A 15-barge tow is standard on the Lower Mississippi River. Click the image to enlarge.

The Western River System, including the Mississippi, Ohio and Illinois Rivers, has been the main conduit for Midwestern crops to travel to international ports in the Gulf of Mexico for export.


Most of the grain grown and transported in the U.S. is used domestically. Of the 480,799,000 tons of grain shipped in the U.S. in 2013, some 114,843,000 tons — 24 percent — was exported, while the remaining 365,956,000 tons remained in the States. Since 1978, the amount of grain transported in the U.S. has steadily increased from about 250 million tons in 1978 to a peak of just over 500 million tons in 2010. But the amount exported has remained steady. In 1978, domestic and export grain was almost evenly split at 125 million tons each. Increased domestic use has been driven by several factors including a growing U.S. population, ethanol producers’ greater demand for corn, and more consumption of grain-fed livestock. At the same time, demand for U.S. exports has been held in check by increased grain production in Brazil, Russia, Canada and the European Union.

In 2013, barges only transported 1 percent of grain used domestically, while trains transported 21 percent and trucks hauled the remaining 78 percent. However, barges shipped 45 percent of U.S. grain bound for foreign markets. Though 2013 marked one of the slower years for grain exports, since 1998 grain exports have remained fairly steady, which is helping keep barge traffic afloat.

Though barges emit fewer greenhouse gases and are more fuel efficient than trains or trucks — barges can move a ton of cargo 647 miles per gallon of fuel while that same gallon will move a ton of cargo 477 miles via train and only 145 miles by truck — barges are confined to waterways wide, deep and regulated enough to handle large commercial tows. These geographical restrictions limit barges’ usefulness in transporting grain to domestic markets. However, it makes them ideal for moving large amounts of grain from Midwestern farms to international ports in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. For years, barges cruising the Western River System (the Mississippi, Illinois and Ohio Rivers) have made it possible for Midwestern farmers like my granddad to help feed the world and make a decent living, most years.

Barges: A Long Legacy

The often-unseen modern barge is a key ingredient of our modern food system. But barges have been a foundational element of modern society for hundreds of years. In the 1400s, an estimated 12,000 grain barges traveled China’s 1,104-mile Grand Canal, which at that time was nearly 1,000 years old.

The Grand Canal of China

Copyright: © Vincent Ko Hon Chiu. Photo by: Vincent Ko Hon Chiu

Those barges helped transform China into one of the world’s leading civilizations, transporting the rice, wheat, produce, salt and vinegar that fed the empire while fostering cultural exchange between China’s regional styles of cooking.

In 1666, French King Louis XIV authorized work to begin on the Canal du Midi, a waterway designed to transport wheat from Toulouse to the Mediterranean. As was the case with many early canals, men or pack animals towed the barges — which is why the boats that now push barges are called towboats — loaded with wine and wheat that enriched the merchants of southern France. This canal project helped inspire a boom in 18th-century British canal building, an endeavor that became the backbone of the industrial revolution.

Old map of the Canal du Midi in Southern France.

Old map of the Canal du Midi in Southern France.

Across the Atlantic, the young American republic, hemmed in by the Appalachians, needed to find routes westward. Seeing an opportunity, New York capitalized on a gap in the mountains, created by the Mohawk River, and in 1817 began construction on the 363-mile Erie Canal. After the canal opened in 1825, barges were towed by pack animals that trod packed-dirt paths lining the canal’s shore. These barges carried both cargo bound for New York City and passengers heading west — in less than half the time it took to travel the route by wagon and at a tenth of the cost. These efficiencies revolutionized the U.S., transforming New York City into the nation’s leading center of commerce and manufacturing.

The canal made New York the second port, after New Orleans, with an all-water route to the young nation’s interior, opening the West to the eastern seaboard. People and goods manufactured in the East could easily, by early 19th-century standards, travel to the Midwest and start settling there. By 1836, settlers shipped 369,000 barrels of grain back East. Some of their descendants would eventually use barges on the Mississippi to transport grain and other goods to international markets.

Barges may be humble flat-bottomed boats, but as a kid watching them steam up and down the Mississippi I was right to be impressed. They not only helped my granddad manage one of his farms but also helped him and other U.S. farmers transport their crops to countries around the world. Barges have for centuries provided the transportation infrastructure for feeding millions and nurturing modern civilization. 

From Hoof to Highway

From Hoof to Highway

Since the Civil War, beef has been central to Texas’ agricultural economy. The movement of all those cattle, from ranch to slaughterhouse, shaped the state’s modern highway system — literally.

Fourteen-year-old Frank King, a cattle drover in the late 19th century, was responsible for moving cattle through Texas and points north. Back then, men and boys on horseback rode through the fields, plains and hills of what’s now the center of the country, forming trails that remained long after the last of the cattle drives — trails that became some of this country’s most well-traveled highways.

Conceptions of Texas, for natives and non-Texans alike, often begin with sepia-tinged images of cattle drives, visions of sprawling ranches and the smoky smell of slow-cooked beef briskets. Since the Civil War, beef has steadfastly remained at the center of Texas culture and its agricultural economy. But while beef is no longer the state’s largest export product, the paths taken by beef cattle to go from range to market had a lasting impact on paths developed for human travel. The legacies of moving cattle to market on the hoof still shape how people, animals and products move into and around Texas.

“I was only fourteen, but had been learnin’ the work on the Bill Chisholm Ranch on the Canadian River in the Chickasaw Nation,” recalled a much-older Frank King in an oral history recorded in the 1930s and housed at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. As he recounted the mechanization of his “Old West” way of life, he noted the stark changes he’d seen in the previous 60 years. “The young fellers can’t vision the broad Plains, now covered with wheat fields” — in the 1930s when he recorded these memories — “…as once bein’ the home of millions of buffalo grazin’ and runnin’ across ’em, lookin’ like great big black waves as they moved from North to South, changin’ with the seasons.”

Managing a herd of hundreds or even thousands of animals required a kind of choreography. A team of drovers, as cowboys were more accurately known, spread out around the herd, keeping strays from wandering too far off course. They were on the hoof together for weeks at a time, covering distances of hundreds of miles between ranch and beef processor. Image from “Cattle Drive,” from Flint Hills Cowboys, Jim Hoy. Click on the image to enlarge.

Erwin E. Smith (1886-1947); A coyote trapped at the carcass of a range critter. Three Circles Ranch, Texas.; 1906; nitrate negative; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, TX; LC.S59.215

Erwin E. Smith (1886-1947); The loading yards at the railroad station; one of the first shipping points to be established on the Texas plains. Lubbock, Texas.; 1910; Nitrate negative; Erwin E. Smith Collection of the Library of Congress on Deposit at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas; LC.S59.585

Today, those waves moving along the north-south corridors of Texas are made of motor vehicles. Interstate 35 is the main road that runs north and south through Texas, forming a highway spine from Mexico through the American heartland all the way north to Lake Superior. Yet the very things that make it modern — its expanses of pavement and high speeds — also obscure the unique history of this strip of ground in Texas. When we drive up I-35 in Texas today, we are following a movement pattern carved out by bovine hooves — first by wild bison, as King remembered, and then by ranched cattle. That’s hard to imagine now, as the concrete hums under the tires and the landscape whizzes by in a blur.

Unbeknownst to most motorists today, including truckers moving cattle through various points of the beef commodity chain, Interstate 35 overlays the same path taken by cattle drovers, the first men on horseback to guide Texas cattle to northern markets in the 19th century. Men like Frank King. “When I started to ridin’ them North Texas ranges, barbed wire hadn’t been invented,” he remembered. “There was nothin’ to hold cows together but cowboys and hosses.”

Topography helped, too. King and his fellow drovers followed existing wild bison trails that hugged the geological guide of the Balcones Escarpment. The drovers were hired to walk Texas cattle to railroad depots in Missouri and Kansas, but in the early days there was no set route. The cattle themselves found and followed these tamped-down bison trails. “It was a wonderful sight to see herds of them lanky old cattle strung out along the trail. Folks didn’t drive cattle in them days,” he noted. “They moved ’em, lettin’ ’em graze along in the right direction ’til they reached the northern markets or grazin’ grounds.” Even for someone who was there, the past seemed very far away.

Lexicon IconChisholm Trail

The trail known as the Chisholm Trail guided Texas cattle northward through Indian Territory, no matter where the cattle came from in Texas. It was first marked out by a Cherokee man named Jesse Chisholm to provide safe passage for cattle moving north from the Red River to Abilene. Later, the Chisholm Trail came to also include a route from San Antonio to the Red River, and today the route is mostly overlaid by Texas Highway 81.


In contrast to the well-established east-west corridor known as the Old San Antonio Road — the Spanish Texas version of El Camino Real — north/south routes in Texas were inhospitable to Anglo settler colonists in the 1820s moving into what is now Texas. The east-west routes of the Old San Antonio Road were a series of trails blazed in the late 17th century to ferry people, animals and commodities from Louisiana deep into the Spanish Empire. But the route north from San Antonio remained remarkably unchanged, even in the days of the Texas Republic and Texas’ entry into the United States in 1845, and was used almost exclusively by bison and indigenous nations. More passable long-distance routes beyond El Camino Real didn’t emerge until after the Civil War.

This timing had much to do with the post–Civil War militarization of the western plains against indigenous people, which opened up territories to settler colonists. At this point, any new route across Texas was designed to funnel resources toward burgeoning markets. Yet even in this moment of rapid modernization, the most enduring route from southern to northern Texas was formed by bovine hooves with a twist: they were beeves, not bison.

From the 1840s to the 1890s, cattle moved northward from Mexico and Texas on the hoof, grazing on lush grassland prairies during autumn before boarding a train in winter to feed the meat demands of industrial cities to the east. The Shawnee Trail, an indigenous and bison-maintained trailway that prefigured I-35, was the first popular route to bring Texas cattle to northern markets in the 1840s and 1850s because it connected with rail and port systems in Missouri.

King rode the trails during the rise of ranching in the 1870s. As Anglo settlers took over more and more indigenous land, “there was no fences at first and cattle herds was located on ranges and kept there by line riders and sign riders,” effectively grazing within the living fences made by King and his fellow hired hands.

The financial stakes were high for this fast-growing industry. After the Civil War, Texas cattle numbered in the millions, and postwar cattle capitalists eagerly resumed the pre-war Shawnee Trail route in 1866. As railroads crept further west, cattle entrepreneur Joseph McCoy opened a depot in Abilene, Kansas. This reorientation to a more western terminus inaugurated the famed Chisholm Trail, guiding Texas cattle north straight through Oklahoma Indian Territory into Kansas. The Texas State Historical Association estimates that more than 1.5 million cattle tamped down the Chisholm Trail between 1866 and 1873; other sources estimate that more than 5 million cattle wound up in Kansas over the life of the trail into the 1890s. The powerful trail-making capabilities of thousands upon thousands of bovine hooves made parts of Texas navigable by settlers for the first time.

When cattle arrived in Kansas, they rested and grazed on the tallgrass prairie before loading up on trains. The locations of the northern railheads were ideally situated near grasslands to fatten cattle before their final journey to slaughter — a circumstance that kept cattle traveling out of Texas by hoof even after railways had been well established in the state. Indeed, Texas rails were plentiful in the era of on-the-hoof mobility. Rail access across eastern Texas flourished between 1870 and 1880, when the number of rail miles more than quadrupled, from 700 to 3,293. Much of this was passenger rail that connected towns to cities.

Connecting goods to markets was harder. In the 1870s, the explosion of Texas railways did not immediately affect cattle drives, in part because freight fees were far higher than drovers’ costs and most railroads were built in the eastern part of the state. This left the Chisholm Trail mostly free of rail crossings. The early Texas rail system was simply not designed to move beef north, but rather to move profitable cotton crops east and move people from town to town. Rails revolutionized human mobility across Texas, enabling many Texans to break free from their small towns when roads were few and far between. But as rails expanded east and west, cattle still cut the most important northward routes.

Texas Traffic: Cattle to Cars

The routes cattle drovers took laid the foundation for many of Texas’ modern highways. The ground, tamped down by decades of cattle drives — and millennia of migrating bison — gave way to roads in the middle of the 20th century. Interstate 35, the main north-south artery that bisects the state, follows the old Shawnee Trail. Click on the image to enlarge.


The Texas State Historical Association estimates that more than 1.5 million cattle tamped down the Chisholm Trail between 1866 and 1873; other sources estimate that more than 5 million cattle wound up in Kansas over the life of the trail into the 1890s.

Erwin E. Smith (1886-1947); Overlooking the Canadian River While Cowpunchers Put a Herd of LS Cattle Across It; 1907; Nitrate negative; Erwin E. Smith Collection of the Library of Congress on Deposit at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas; LC.S59.489
January 1965 aerial photo of San Gabriel River in Georgetown, Texas, with Interstate Highway 35 bridge under construction.


In the 1880s, barbed wire began to replace men on horseback as the preferred method for keeping ranch cattle contained, and rails expanded westward into the state. By 1890, rails and fences blocked the Chisholm Trail, helping to bring the cattle drive era to an end. In 1900, the movement of cattle across Texas was no longer a long grazing walk, but rather a journey of multiple short segments. For example, North Texas cattle raisers would drive their cattle a short distance to Fort Worth on the hoof. Then, a major meatpacker like Swift and Co. would buy cattle from the Fort Worth stockyards and put them on a train to one of the 20 feed yards they ran in Texas. The last stop on the trail was the slaughterhouse, where the meat was packed and shipped by refrigerated rail car to markets across the nation.

Cattlemen no longer had to bear financial responsibility for their animals during the long walk northward. For men like King, this spelled the end of a way of life. “The younger generation will never have the thrills and experiences of the old-time fellers before, during, and immediately after the wire fence days, when a cowhand didn’t have anything to do but ride them side-wheel ponies after cows.” Cowhands still guided cattle a short distance to local rail yards, but for half a century — from about 1900 to after World War II — the grand and ancient bovine trails through Texas were barely used at all.

The Shawnee Trail was reborn as Interstate 35 through Texas in the early 1960s. It joined a 24,000-mile network of rural roads in Texas that was paved between 1945 and 1955. Turning the Shawnee trail into Interstate 35 opened this route back up to cattle, but it also heralded the end of cattle walking across Texas. By 1965, flatbed semitrailers brought cattle north from their home ranches — whether to be fed in a Panhandle lot, to graze on the Tallgrass Hills of Kansas or to be distributed as meat products to grocers and food producers around the country.

Roads like Interstate 35 reproduced some of the oldest navigable routes that bovine critters had used to cross Texas for centuries — routes that had been generally unavailable to them since the end of the 19th century, but to which they returned on wheels, no longer on the hoof. This pattern of movement from ranch to lot, facilitated by the rural and interstate highway system, still describes how beef cattle move around and out of Texas.

Trail Boss

Margaret Heffernan Borland ran a large cattle operation from Victoria, Texas, with her husband, Alexander, in the 1860s. She took over the business when he died of yellow fever in 1867. Within a few years she grew her herd to a whopping 10,000 head and regularly sent herds of 2,500 or more up to Kansas railheads. She procured and organized the supplies and hired the laborers for these drives. In 1873, she led a drive from Victoria to Wichita herself. Like many at that time, she caught an illness along the trail. She died shortly after arriving in Kansas.


Frank King witnessed a wholesale transformation of the way cattle were raised and sold. These changes were hard to miss because they were geographical as much as they were logistical: Indian territories shrank and disappeared, fence posts appeared on landscapes and rail beds rose up across well-tamped trails. King did not live to see the day cattle were loaded up on highway haulers, but he did observe one way in which rural roads affected the lives of cattle workers in 20th-century Texas. While cattle droving was “sometimes scary when the Comanches were on the prod,” it was not “half as dangerous as it is nowadays tryin’ to cross a street or highway on foot when a band of modern Apaches is passin’ along armed with one of them high-powered automobiles. Personally,” he added, “I’ll take my chances with the Comanches.” Perhaps he had an inkling that paved roads would spell the end of his kind of work for good.

Change in the cattle industry is harder to see now. While the geography of modern cattle logistics has remained steady, changes affecting the beef industry have occurred in the less-visible areas of veterinary medicine and nutrition, market regulation and animal reproduction.

King, who experienced an era of incredible change from the back of a horse, could not foresee the days of the 75-mile-per-hour cattle trail, just as the Shawnee, Apache and Comanche residents of Texas could not have foreseen the transformation of their bison trails into commercial cattle routes. But for the last 500 years, the route they followed has remained the same.

By 1965, flatbed trailers brought cattle north from ranches to feed lots or processors in North Texas or as far as Kansas over a new network of Texas highways paved between 1945 and 1955. Photo: Martin Phippard Collection.