Over the course of the year, we pay tribute to 35 living Vanguards and 12 departed heroes. This month’s featured Vanguard is Drew & Myra Goodman of Earthbound Farm.
Originally printed in the December 2020 issue of Produce Business.
Take two 20-somethings from New York City, put them on a 2.5-acre farm in California’s Carmel Valley and what do they grow? A multimillion-dollar fresh produce business with a brand that’s a household name. Myra and Drew Goodman, who founded Earthbound Farm, didn’t know enough about farming back in 1984 to think they couldn’t be successful. What’s more, the Goodmans ultimately cultivated acres of industry-changing products that even farmers with long roots in the industry hadn’t yet innovated. For this — the mainstreaming of a trend-setting trio of organic produce, spring mix and pre-washed packaged salads at retail — the Goodmans are indeed Produce Business Vanguards.
“It’s hard to imagine today, but back in 1984, when the Goodman’s started farming, ‘organic’ was mostly purchased by extremely early adopters who were making a values-based purchase and were willing to accept what often was lower quality,” says Samantha Cabaluna, who started in 2004 as senior manager of communications for Earthbound Farm, moving on to managing director of brand communications before leaving in 2016 to start her own company, Unvarnished: Communications+Marketing, in Bow, WA.
“The Goodmans also had the vision and open-mindedness to partner first with Mission Ranches and then Tanimura & Antle to scale organic farming — adhering rigorously to organic standards but also bringing the benefits of sophisticated larger-scale farming, including post-harvest handling practices,” add Cabaluna. “This was not only contributed to producing more organic produce so it was more widely available, but also ensured it was great quality, with a reliable year-round supply, and it brought the price premium for organic down because of efficiencies. That facilitated the wide acceptance of organic produce.”
A career in fresh produce wasn’t on Myra or Drew’s radar during their college days. Myra majored in the Political Economy of Industrialized Societies at the University of California at Berkeley, aspiring to a career at the United Nations or World Bank, while Drew earned a Bachelor of Arts in environmental studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Myra’s parents had purchased a rundown farm in California for retirement and offered the two students an opportunity to live there and make improvements instead of paying rent.
“There were raspberries on the farm, but when it came time to apply the chemicals, we both didn’t want to,” says Myra. “We knew the chemicals were dangerous, so it didn’t seem right to apply these in our backyard and eat the food grown with them. Even though we were blank-slate farmers, grew up in New York, had no idea how to farm and had up to that time bought all of our produce at the supermarket, we felt we should intuitively be able to farm and grow produce without the chemicals.”
Buoyed by $10,000 in raspberry sales that first year, the Goodmans looked for something else to grow rather than head back East to graduate school. One of the clients Myra baby-sat for on the side owned a restaurant. He told the Goodmans about the emerging interest in organic spring mix and baby greens, ingredients that were on the menu at news-making restaurants like Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse. The couple soon planted baby lettuces and Asian greens, which went from seed to harvest faster than other lettuces and thus were easier to grow both in general and organically.
One challenge in this early heyday was that the Goodmans were so busy they didn’t have time to prepare and eat the greens they grew. So, on Sundays, they started pre-washing and packaging the lettuces in seven Ziplock bags, one for each night of the week. When they lost a big restaurant customer due to a change in chefs, they took a page out of their personal experience and dipped a toe into trying to sell their Mixed Baby Greens to other busy consumers at retail. At first, they put their salads on Greyhound buses for delivery to small communities up the Pacific coast. Plus, they FedEx’d salads overnight to New York. Baby Spinach Salad, Asian Salad Mix and Baby Romaine Salad soon followed.
Fast forward, in 1992, the Goodmans moved Earthbound to a 32-acre farm in Watsonville and built a 9,000-square foot production facility. Now was the ripe time for Drew to employ his natural-born sales skills. Since a Costco had just opened nearby, he set his sights on meeting the retailer’s buyers at the PMA Foodservice Conference that summer. By the next year, Earthbound Salads were in Costco and soon Lucky, Safeway and Albertsons.
“I knew that I didn’t have the skills to be an actual farmer, so meeting Stan Pura and being able to partner with the Mission Ranch guys, so we could professionally farm organically, was really a pivotal point and the moment where we were able to grow the product that we needed to really have organic flourish in the marketplace,” says Drew.
Pura, a third-generation farmer and then managing director of Mission Ranches, first partnered with the Goodman’s Earthbound Farm in 1995. “We were interested in getting into organic and looked at a couple of smaller companies,” says Pura. “But what stood out about Myra and Drew was their passion for the category. They believed in organic and were passionate about it.”
By 1996, Earthbound moved its headquarters and processing operation to a 25,000-square-foot facility in San Juan Bautista, CA. They added organic romaine hearts, broccoli, cauliflower and celery. Two years later, with 5,800 acres in cultivation, Earthbound became the largest grower of organic produce in the U.S.
Over the next 17 years, until the Goodmans sold Earthbound Farms in 2013, the couple received numerous awards, accolades and acclaim. These included articles in hundreds of publications from the Costco Connection to The New York Times and Forbes.
In 2015, Myra was one of the farmers chosen by the James Beard Foundation and US Department of State to represent the U.S. in a prominent ‘conversations’ video shown at the 2015 World’s Fair. Today, the Goodmans live on their original farm in the Carmel Valley with their dogs and work actively in areas in and out of fresh produce.
“I think some people in the industry would debate that we started the whole pre-washed pre-packaged salad industry. But I think it’s true. We were the first people to successfully market pre-washed packaged salads for retail sales, and that was in 1986. So, we were definitely part of the whole packaged salad revolution. Plus, we were part of the spring mix revolution. However, what I think Drew and I are most proud of is being part of the organic revolution,” says Myra.