Andy Nelson, Markets Editor
Andy Nelson, Markets Editor

California produce grower-shippers looking for an alternative to shipping their products halfway across the country can thank (in part) Midwestern egg producers.

Who, in turn, can thank California voters — no doubt some of those very grower-shippers.

Jason Spafford can explain.

In 2008, California voters passed Proposition 2, a ballot proposition aimed at preventing cruelty to farm animals.

Submitted to the state’s secretary of state as the Prevention of Farm Cruelty Act, Prop 2 passed with 63% of the vote.

Among its requirements was that egg-laying hens and other animals be confined only in ways that allowed them to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely.

Egg groups opposed Prop 2, and regardless of where you stand on the issue, you can see why: after the initiative passed, it made it harder for some California producers to maintain their old levels of production, given the new animal welfare requirements.

What hurt California helped Midwestern egg producers, said Spafford, vice president of business development for Edina, Minn.-based logistics specialist McKay Transcold.

McKay found itself sending a lot more trucks west packed with eggs. After a few years, it got the idea to expand the service by providing rail service to California.

Those trains weren’t going to come back empty. Fortunately for McKay, Spafford doesn’t just know eggs. He grew up on a Wisconsin potato farm and understands what it takes to move fresh produce long distances.

The result will be dedicated refrigerated rail service between Selma, Calif., and Wilmington, Ill. Spafford said the service, which will feature two trains pulling 50 specially outfitted boxcars, should be up and running by early 2014. California stone fruit, citrus and carrots are among the commodities McKay expects to ship.

With fuel costs stubbornly high, and carbon footprints ever more important to sustainability-minded companies, it’s nice to see another rail player on the scene. It’s been awhile.

In 2006, Railex LLC, Rotterdam, N.Y., announced its partnership with the Union Pacific Railroad and CSX Transportation to transport produce from the West Coast to the East Coast in 64-foot refrigerated railcars.

Citrus, grapes, melons, tree fruit, potatoes and onions are among the commodities Railex ships between Wallula, Wash., and Rotterdam.

In 2008, Railex added a line between New York and Delano, Calif., and the company plans to open a southern route from California and Washington to northern Florida or southern Georgia.

Between Railex and more traditional providers like Union Pacific, which have made huge strides when it comes to dependability, some West Coast shippers have told me they’ve increased their rail shipments up to ten-fold in recent years.

McKay Transcold is banking on more of them switching. Let the eggs-for-produce exchange begin.

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