The Van Trump Report

How a Former USDA Worker Made Millions!

It was on this day back in 1952 that Clarence Birdseye marketed his first frozen peas to the public consumer. Birdseye grew up in a large family and during the summer after his freshman year, of college Birdseye worked for the USDA in New Mexico and Arizona as an “assistant naturalist”, at a time when the agency was concerned with helping farmers and ranchers get rid of predators, chiefly coyotes.  In 1908, his family fell on hard times and forced Birdseye to withdraw from college after his second year. Birdseye joined the US Biological Survey and ventured to the American Southwest, where he quickly found a side hustle selling coyote pelts to New Yorkers at a +60% profit margin. In the spring of 1912, Birdseye moved to Labrador, a remote, inhospitably cold region in Newfoundland (now Eastern Canada). It was not considered to be a place of great economic promise. But Birdseye sniffed out a market for fox exports. In short order, he was dog sledding across the vast frozen tundra capturing wild silver foxes, first for breeding and later for furs. Two years after arriving, he’d reeled in $6k in profit ($154k today).

It was during his tenure living in Labrador from 1912 to 1915 that he became further interested in food preservation by freezing, especially fast freezing. He purchased land at Muddy Bay, where he built a ranch for raising foxes. He was taught by the Inuit how to ice fish under very thick ice. In -40 °F weather, he discovered that the fish he caught froze almost instantly, and when thawed, tasted fresh. He recognized immediately that there could be a market if he could learn how to properly freeze food. What he had noticed was that when food was frozen slowly, at temperatures near the freezing point, ice crystals form within the animal or vegetable cells; when the food thaws, cellular fluid leaked from the damaged tissue, giving the food a mushy or dry consistency. However, rapid freezing, at much lower temperatures, gives crystals less time to form and thus does less damage to the food and taste. 

In 1922, Birdseye conducted fish-freezing experiments at the Clothel Refrigerating Company, and then established his own company, Birdseye Seafoods Inc., to freeze fish fillets with chilled air at −45 °F. In 1924, his company went bankrupt for lack of consumer interest in the product. That same year, he developed an entirely new process for commercially viable quick-freezing: packing fish in cartons, then freezing the contents between two refrigerated surfaces under pressure. Birdseye created General Seafood Corporation to promote this method.

Birdseye moved his General Seafood Corporation to Gloucester, Massachusetts in 1925. There it marketed and sold Birdseye’s newest invention, the double belt freezer, in which cold brine chilled a pair of stainless steel belts carrying packaged fish, freezing the fish quickly. His invention is considered by many historians as the beginning of today’s frozen foods industry. Birdseye patented and invented other machinery which cooled even more quickly. In 1927, he patented the multiplate freezing machine which was used as the basis for freezing food for several decades. Birdseye’s new invention was way ahead of its time — and this caused a host of new challenges.

Though Birdseye had “solved” the frozen food problem, America lacked the infrastructure to distribute it: Trains didn’t yet have freezer cars to preserve food on long journeys across the country. Warehouses weren’t quite cold enough to store it. And traditional grocery retailers had no viable way to stock it. By late-1927, Birdseye had thousands of pounds of frozen food and nowhere to go. He realized he had to help solve these problems on his own.

Luckily, Birdseye had been out traveling around in early-1928 and ran across a company that had just invented something new called a storefront freezer. Birdseye decided to make a huge bet and agreed to purchase the storefront freezers, which were very expensive at the time at over $1,000 each, for any grocery store that would agree to sell his frozen foods. He also talked DuPont into making a waterproof cellophane for his products by convincing them how big marketshare could be. Within two years, General Seafood Corporation was able to expand to 27 products — fish, berries, frozen peas, ect. and Birdsey quickly caught the attention of some much larger players in the food space.

Marjorie Merriweather Post, the then-president of what is now Post Consumer Brands, one of our nation’s largest makers of cereals, partnered with a bank named Goldman Sachs and approached Birdseye’s to buy his company. Clarence Birdseye finally agreed and walked away with $23.5 million, which was a massive amount in 1929 (today over +$400 Million). He also agreed to stay with the company as the Director of Research and negotiated a healthy $50,000 annual salary, which today would be over +$750,000 annually. Birdseye’s company General Seafood Corporation was rebranded to a new company they called General Foods.

When I studied more about Birdseye and his business savvy, one thing really stuck out… He said he would often travel to new cities and just drift around trying to learn how others were doing things. But perhaps most important is the fact he didn’t just focus on one industry or simply what he was most interested in. He was open to learning from those in other industries such as candle-making, chewing gum, and steel manufacturing. He was constantly taking small ideas and simple hacks that he could see helping others then applying those to his own businesses and ideas. This is where I think a lot of us in the ag space drop the ball. I constantly have to push myself to get outside my core competency. I have to push myself to go to conferences that are non-traditional or outside the norm. Ironically, this is where I have found and learned some of my best insights for life and business. (source: Wiki, History, The Hustle)

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