At the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Cooking for Solutions event last week, I ran into Drew Goodman, the founder with his wife Myra of Earthbound Farm. The company, which began on a 2-1/2 acre plot in nearby Carmel, is now the biggest organic produce company in the world known for their bagged salad mixes.
But for years, they also had a conventional arm, selling non-organic produce from land that was undergoing the three-year transition to organic production. This so-called "split operation" was a nifty set up, for it allowed them to sell to customers who wanted a non-organic product and it also created a market for transitional crops. You might say this arrangement was crucial to their growth.
It also had a downside, most notably when tainted conventional spinach they processed for Dole was implicated in the e. coli crisis a couple of years back.
Now, Earthbound, or more accurately, the corporate entity that owns it, Natural Selection Foods, is out of the conventional produce business altogether.
"As of April, we're totally organic," Drew told me.
This was surprising news since it meant that they were no longer selling any product off of transitioning land. With prices of conventional salad mix so low, however, it might make sense. It also makes sense given their values -- they are strong believers in the benefits of organic farming and food and now have a robust enough business that they could leave conventional behind.
It also means they no longer run dual lines in their salad processing plants, one conventional, the other organic. Now, all their facilities are organic.
I also asked him whether demand was still growing for their product, in spite of rising food prices. He said it was and didn't expect it to let up anytime soon. In fact, he said, organic spinach sales were extremely high; higher than they were before the whole e. coli crisis struck.
It seems consumers still see high value in the organic salad product, perhaps because it's relative premium to conventional salad mix is so slim. You don't have to pay a lot more to buy organic salad.
Another Earthbound employee told me the organic product wholesales for about $4.75-$5 for a three-pound bag to food service distributors, which means a chef pays about $7-9. Conventional salad mix goes for about $4-4.25 per three pounds.
I detailed the company's evolution in Organic, Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grew, but suffice it to say that despite criticism they were highly innovative. That continues to this day with this latest step.
- Samuel Fromartz