This year marks the 65th anniversary of a unique Delta cargo “first.” We transported the first shipment of living vegetable plants by air – 160,000 tomato plants – pulled from the ground the morning of May 9, 1945, in rural Tifton, Georgia, flown 700 miles and set out again in the same day.
This emergency shipment came about when a warm Georgia spring quickly grew the tomato plants almost too big to transplant at their destination in Ohio, where the weather remained freezing.
The plants were going to a field belonging to the H.J. Heinz Company – yes, the Heinz ketchup folks – whose ads promised “pure juice of prize tomatoes / picked, pressed and packed the same day.”
At the first break in the Ohio weather, we loaded 5,000 pounds of tomato plants into a military cargo plane, recently acquired from the U.S. Army. Two Department of Agriculture specialists, with 60 pounds of equipment, went along to test the reaction of the plants to flight. Newspaper reporters and a representative from the War Food Administration were also onboard. The Tift County Chamber of Commerce cheered as the plane took off for Bowling Green.
Shown here, Paul Pate, head of Delta Cargo, watches as Harry Hornbuckle, the tomato plants’ grower, holds a bunch of plants for Dr. E.V. Miller, of the U.S.D.A., to take a temperature reading. This was one of many tests performed during the flight. The scientists concluded that air transport was a favorable way to move live plants. Good news for Delta and Georgia farmers who grew 80% of all U.S. tomato seed plants – a $2.5 million business in 1945.
Now you know a little-remembered piece of aviation/agriculture history! For more Delta “firsts,” check out our recently updated list on the Delta Museum’s website.