Author of the book Organic Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grew
My definition of
fresh is that the perfect little lettuces are carefully hand-picked from the
hillside garden and served within a few hours.
Alice Waters, 1982
would be hard to miss the corporate offices of Earthbound Farm, the largest
organic produce company in the nation. The operation is just off Highway 101, a
half-hour inland from the central coast of California and
five minutes from San Juan Bautista -- a picturesque small town best known for
the nineteenth-century Spanish mission tower James Stewart warily climbed in
Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
Beside green fields that stretch for miles toward the Gabilan Mountains to the
east sits a squat 205,000-square-foot processing plant -- the biggest of five
the company has erected at a cost of more than $110 million. Out back, a row of
refrigerated semitrailers lines up, waiting to pick up the twenty-two million
servings of organic salad the company sells each week. In front, a huge
refrigerated truck idles while a forklift unloads plastic bins of cut lettuce
fresh from the fields. The bins whiz by me, headed for a submarine-sized vacuum
cooling tube. Within twenty minutes the lettuce is chilled to thirty-six
degrees, beginning a cold chain that will continue as the salad is washed and
bagged and sent to supermarkets around the country, where it is sold within
come to the plant to talk with Drew and Myra Goodman, a couple in their
midforties who founded Earthbound on a two-and-a-half-acre garden plot two
decades earlier. From these humble roots, they created a company with $360
million in sales, ranked fourth-largest in the $2.5 billion bagged-salad
industry. With a 5 percent share of the packaged salad market, they have triple
the market penetration of most organic foods. Earthbound bagged lettuce could
now be found in three out of four supermarkets. The Goodmans grow produce on
nearly twenty-six thousand acres, mostly in California and Arizona, but also in
Mexico, Canada, Chile, and New Zealand (for Kiwis).
for all their success, their company was controversial in organic circles.
Myra, a svelt and casually fashionable woman with long dark hair and a New York
accent, mentioned that Earthbound employees attending California’s
Ecological Farming Conference, the premier annual event, had covered up or
removed their ID badges to avoid open hostility from other attendees.
“They felt like Jews in Nazi Germany, like they shouldn’t be
there,” Myra said. When she complained, the conference organizer pleaded
with her to remain a top sponsor.
irked the organic critics wasn’t simply Earthbound’s size --
clearly antithetical to the ideal of the small diversified farm -- but the way
the Goodmans had achieved it. “They were aggressive and predatory,”
one farmer told me. The accepted story seemed to be that they had stolen the
organic salad market from smaller farmers, overproducing and dropping the price
until these competitors were driven out. If true, this version of
Earthbound’s corporate history could be read as a parable for the
mainstreaming of organic food, altering the character, ideals, and practices of
the founding generation. Would this move toward industrial-sized organic
farming undermine the identity of organic food itself?
Goodmans felt no need to apologize for their success or sidestep the criticism
when I brought it up. Drew, a broad-shouldered man who was friendly, though
less effusive than Myra, said he simply felt Earthbound was in a different
market than small farms since its customers were Safeway and Wal-Mart, not
white-tablecloth restaurants or farmers’ markets. In these mass markets
they had to compete on price with other mainstream players. Plus, the couple
made clear, they had never really sought to become Big Organic. It just, well,
happened. They had even thought about selling the business and returning to
“a simpler life.” Their PR pitch emphasizes these roots: Young
couple just out of college starts out on a small organic farm in Carmel Valley,
selling baby lettuce to chefs and at a farm stand; a light bulb goes off; they
put the lettuce in ziplock bags and become the first to sell bagged spring mix
to stores. It’s a huge hit. Their company grows like crazy -- partnering
with big farmers, winning supermarket-chain accounts -- until it becomes the
number-one organic produce company (and third-largest organic food brand after
Horizon Organic milk and Silk soy milk).
their obvious marketing smarts, the Goodmans had entrepreneurial zeal, making
the right moves to expand at the right time -- perhaps because they came into
the organic world without a heavy ideological bias. The couple believed in the
premise of organic agriculture but were not going to limit their horizons by
remaining small, local, and tied to natural-food stores. They replaced the
organic idealists’ counterculture baggage with practicality, growth, and
business. Jeff Larkey of Route 1 Farms, in nearby Santa Cruz, told me that in
the 1980s, Drew would drive to his farm in an old Volvo station wagon to pick
up lettuce. “You could even sense back then that they had this business
mentality, you could kind of see it, so in a way it’s not surprising what
happened,” he said. But if the Goodmans were different, they were not
unique in the organic movement: Many of the founders pursued growth and the
mainstreaming of organic food in order to have a larger impact on agriculture
and on consumers. (This is, after all, how I slipped into the movement: through
the attractive entry point of Whole Foods.)
to make sense of how two college kids raised on the Upper East Side of Manhattan
-- the son of an art dealer and the daughter of a jewelry manufacturer -- ended
up with the biggest organic produce business in the nation, if not the world,
it’s necessary to leave them for the moment and take in the landscape.
Because the issue of where they
started, it turns out, was as crucial to their success as all that followed.
Had they begun farming on the East Coast, they would probably still be selling
at a roadside stand, or at a farmers’ market, if they were still farming
at all. But they hadn’t begun on the East Coast. They had pursued a
decidedly Californian model. This was only something I understood after
visiting the Salinas Valley, the
Salad Bowl of the World, where it all began.
Reprinted from the book Organic
Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grew by Samuel Fromartz. Published
by Harcourt; April 2006; $25.00US; 0-15-101130-3. Copyright © 2006 Samuel
Author Samuel Fromartz is a business journalist who has written for Fortune, Business Week, and Inc. This is his first book. He lives in Washington, D.C.
For more information, please visit www.fromartz.com