Gourmet Live: What inspired you to start an organic farm 27 years ago, long before organic was even a buzzword?
MG: When my husband Drew and I started Earthbound Farm 27 years ago, we hadn’t really thought about how our food was produced. Having grown up in Manhattan, we craved some time connecting with nature after college. So when we got an opportunity to live on a 2½–acre raspberry farm in Carmel Valley, California, in exchange for rent, we jumped at the chance. But when the previous farmer showed us how to care for the raspberries, it was basically a schedule for the application of various chemical fertilizers and pesticides. It was a real wake–up call, and we had an instinctive aversion to handling the chemicals or eating food grown with them. How could chemicals meant to kill weeds, insects, and diseases be healthy for us? So we set out to find a better way to care for our crops. We got a copy of Rodale’s Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening and a little advice from local nurserymen who were sympathetic to what we were trying to do. Most people thought we were delusional to think we could farm successfully long–term using only organic methods.
GL: Where are your farms located, and how many acres are in the network?
MG: Earthbound Farm organic produce is grown by 150 farmers on farms ranging in size from 5 acres to about 680 acres. All together, there are about 37,000 crop acres that produce our product. The farms for our vegetables and salad greens are located in northern California and Nevada from April through November. And during the winter months, production shifts to the Sonoran Desert in southeastern California, southwestern Arizona, and northern Mexico, where it’s warmer. The same farmers who work the farms in California during the spring, summer, and fall farm the other farms, and they follow the same rigorous practices in both places. Fruit items are grown in the places best suited to produce the best quality. So for example, apples are grown in Washington State in the fall and winter and in Chile in the spring and summer. And quite frankly, it’s so important for organic farms to be geographically diversified, so we’re always looking at other growing regions.
GL: What specifications do farms need to qualify as an Earthbound Farm?
MG: Every farmer who wants to qualify to grow Earthbound Farm organic food has to go through a rigorous food–safety and organic–integrity qualification process. Once they’ve been qualified, we continue to work very closely with them on all aspects of food safety and organic integrity. They must adhere to our protocols, and we have several checkpoints and audits, in addition to having our own field–based personnel on site with all of our growers to verify that our standards are being upheld.
GL: What is the time line like from seed to table with regards to your organic salads (spinach, romaine, arugula, etc.)?
MG: The time line from seed to table will vary depending on the season. When it’s colder, the baby greens may take up to 45 days from seed to harvest. When it’s very warm, that period can be as short as 20 days. Either way, from harvest to your local store can take anywhere from two to seven days, depending on the distance. All of our greens have a 17–day shelf life as long as they are kept at the appropriate temperature, and part of that time accounts for our “test and hold” food–safety program. We test all lots of greens for pathogens, and then hold them for up to 16 hours while we await results of the testing. It takes a little extra time, but it’s an investment in selling only the healthiest food possible.
GL: Your company was the first to introduce prewashed, packaged salad mixes for retail sale in 1986. How do those products fare in popularity then and now, 25 years later?
MG: Back in 1986 when we washed, packed, and sold our first bags of salad, so few people even knew what spring mix was. To most people, a salad was iceberg lettuce with heavy dressing and tomatoes. But today, tender–leaf salads (all the baby greens, from spinach to spring mix to arugula) account for nearly 28 percent of sales in the packaged salad category, iceberg–based salads account for just 19 percent, and romaine–based salads account for about 20 percent, according to Nielsen. And while sales of conventionally produced packaged salads are fairly flat, sales of organic packaged salads are growing at 13.8 percent. One more bit of data is that organic salads account for 49 percent of the sales of packaged tender–leaf salads, while organic as a percentage of total food is at 4 percent, according to the Organic Trade Association’s 2011 Organic Industry Survey. So I’d say, especially when you’re talking about organic salads, they’ve just gotten more and more popular.
GL: You’re the world’s largest grower of organic produce. What are your most popular products?
MG: Our mixed baby greens and baby spinach salads are our top sellers among our packaged salads. We are starting to see some new products really take off, too, like our four–count package of petite heirloom lettuce heads and our broccolette (a cross between broccoli and Chinese kale). It’s very delicious.
GL: What is the mission of Earthbound Farm’s food–safety program?
MG: The company’s mission is to bring the benefits of organic food to as many people as possible and serve as a catalyst for positive change. We believe with the rigor of our food–safety program, we are serving as a catalyst for positive change. We test all lots of incoming freshly harvested greens for pathogens (holding them till testing clears them) and then we test every lot again once the greens have been packaged, just for good measure. At either level, if we find any evidence of a pathogen, we destroy the entire lot. Prior to our initiating this program, people in the fresh–produce industry were not familiar with the rapid testing methods we’re using now, so product testing was impractical for highly perishable vegetables. But now, we’re proving it can be done. Testing isn’t the be–all and end–all of food–safety programs, but we think it’s an important step to verify that your other safety practices are working.