Innovation, marketing brought new life to a familiar vegetable.
Originally printed in the February 2023 issue of Produce Business.
The baby carrot was not born because a mommy carrot and daddy carrot loved each other very much.
In the 1980s, farmer Mike Yurosek in Lamont, CA — the heart of carrot country — had a problem. Like other farmers, many of his carrots were too damaged or misshapen to be bagged and sold as fresh. Some of these misfit vegetables could be juiced, and some could be fed to cows and pigs, but most went to waste. By the 1980s, Yurosek had tons of misfit carrots and threw most of it out.
Yurosek had already established his innovation chops in the 1960s when he introduced his Bunny Luv carrot brand, with his wife drawing an enticing bunny for the package. He decided to turn his misshapen carrots into two-inch bite sized morsels.
First, Yurosek tried a potato peeling machine, but it was too time-consuming. He then turned to an industrial green bean slicer, which he modified to cut the carrots into the two-inch babies that became the industry standard.
Yurosek’s novelty revolutionized the moribund carrot business by introducing a product that works for hors d’oeuvres, snacks, or as healthy items in school lunch boxes.
Per capita consumption of this long-familiar food quadrupled in the 100 years ending in 2019 and most of that growth could be attributed to Yurosek’s innovation.
“During the past 35 years, the U.S. carrot industry was transformed by fresh-cut technology, which introduced baby and other fresh-cut carrot products,” says U.S. Department of Agriculture economist Wilma Davis in an April 2022 analysis of the impact of fresh cut technology. “Fresh carrot per capita availability — a proxy used for per capita consumption — has trended upward over the past century, increasing from 2.2 pounds in 1919 to a projection of 8.8 pounds in 2022. Driven by rising fresh-market use, long-run consumer interest in carrots has been strong in the United States.”
These fresh cut “baby” carrots spurred tremendous growth in the category. Per capita availability of fresh carrots peaked in 1997 at 14.1 pounds during the initial introductory period of fresh-cut products, says Davis.
Then, despite the widespread appeal and convenience of fresh-cut products, after the 1997 peak, availability of all fresh carrots trended downward. But after 2009, the trend in fresh carrot availability reversed and slowly increased. “During the five-year period of 2015-19, per capita availability of fresh carrots returned to the average of 8.9 pounds observed in 2000-04.”
The popularity of the fresh-cut carrot babies inspired a few growers to produce miniature carrot varieties that hold the promise of longer shelf life because they offer the popular small size with the skin intact.
MAKE MINE MINI
While fresh-cut baby carrots remain popular, a few producers are offering carrots harvested mini with the skin intact.
“A new unique item from Fresha is our Minnie carrot,” says Matthew Wulf, sales manager at Fresha, Morris, MN. “It is a whole, unpeeled miniature snacking carrot. These have great flavor and work well for cooking as whole carrots, or for snacking. Because they are unpeeled, they have a great shelf life.”
Fresha also offers a fresh veggie blend that includes carrots, potatoes, onions, and celery that can be displayed in the produce aisle or in the meat section, says Wulf.
Salad International of Los Angeles, CA. also produces mini carrots with the tops still attached, packaged in a microwaveable bag.
CATCH THE RAINBOW
Another new trend in the carrot business is the emergence of different colorful packs and products featuring carrots of many colors. Farmers in the Mideast and Central Asia have grown white, purple, red, and yellow carrots for centuries and U.S. grower-shippers have recently become interested in these varieties that bring color and nutritional diversity to carrots.
These colorful root vegetables have added another new twist in this category.
“In my opinion, the new item is the rainbow carrots in 25-pound and cello bags,” says Diane Shulman, president and CEO of Jerry Shulman Produce Shipper Inc., Levittown, NY.
Jerry Shulman began selling produce from his Long Island home in the 1960s. Today, branching out from its origins as a distributor of vegetables grown on Long Island, the company also features premium import vegetables.
“We sell Canadian jumbo and cello carrots, Mexican Jumbo and Israeli jumbo and occasionally cello,” says Shulman. “The Israeli carrots are typically sweeter and have an excellent shelf life.”
Dorot Farm, the No. 1 exporter of fresh and sweet carrots from Israel, recently introduced its line of sweet, organic carrots, expanding its distribution of the organic line to the North American market. Ami Ben-Dror, chief executive of BDA/Dorot Farm, reports the company’s first step is “launching the organic carrots to our main customers,” and meeting high demand from others for the organic carrots, which are available in 2-, 5- and 25-pound bags.
Dorot Farm’s product line also includes conventional carrots and rainbow carrots for foodservice and retailers, says Ben-Dror, and all products are grown under strict quality requirements that meet Israeli PPIS standards, as well as Euro and Global G.A.P.
Bakersfield-based Grimmway Farms became the world’s largest carrot grower by buying Mike Yurosek’s operation in the 1990s. To supplement its Bakersfield headquarters, Grimmway opened a processing facility in Washington in 2013 and another in Georgia in 2018.
Grimmway acquired Cal-Organic in 2001, and quickly become a player in organics and changed the look of the carrot section with the introduction of organic rainbow varieties.
“We were looking to have something new with organics,” says David Bright, marketing manager at Grimmway/Cal Organic. “We wanted some innovation with the organic carrots.”
Grimmway/Cal Organic offers rainbow whole carrots, fresh-cut baby rainbow carrots and, in 2020, introduced rainbow carrot chips for the snack market.
There are subtle differences in flavor among carrots of different colors, which also deliver unique nutrient packages.
And, even after the initial novelty, these colorful carrots continue to increase their market share. “The rainbow carrots have been growing in popularity,” says Bright. “I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but the rainbow carrots have been growing, especially the baby rainbows and the chips.”
Rainbow carrots are so closely identified with Grimmway that even nearby competitors pay homage to the leader.
“Rainbow is Cal-Organic,” says Rob Giragosian, sales manager at Kern Ridge Growers, Arvin, CA. “There’s limited availability, so it’s a niche product.”
Kern Ridge has shipped carrots, including baby carrots, year-round from the southern area of California’s Central Valley for around 50 years.
There are easy cross-merchandising opportunities for popular carrot products. “Baby carrots and chips cross-merchandise well with dips like hummus and ranch dressing,” Bright says. “When it’s cold, carrots cross-merchandise with things for soups or stews, like onions, potatoes, or the protein.”
TIME OF YEAR
Although carrots are a year-round staple in produce, there are times of the year when they shine brightest. “Carrot sales are heavily driven by holidays, primarily Thanksgiving and Christmas,” says Wulf.
Other holidays can also be carrot occasions. “Carrots are a year-round item. There are ups and downs throughout the year. They used to be a big item for St. Patrick’s Day and Mother’s Day — but that seems to have slowed a little,” says Shulman.
While demand may have peaks, a combination of international sources of supply and retail policies make carrots relatively stable in price throughout the year.
“Carrot pricing does not seem to see big shifts,” says Shulman. “The open market sees downward price pressure when seasonal programs and Canada are in season, but retail pricing seems to remain relatively stable. Most seasonal programs are winding down in December, but Israel and Mexico carrots will start being imported.”
Pack sizes have remained relatively stable.
“Bag sizes for cellos have changed to include a three-pound bag; otherwise, standard cellos bags are one, two, and five pounds,” says Shulman. “There’s been some talk about biodegradable plastic — we’re waiting to hear more about that.”
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The Target Carrot Consumer
After peaking at 14.1 pounds when baby carrots were an exciting new trend in the 1990s, U.S. per capita carrot consumption has leveled off at around 9.4 pounds. But there are significant demographic differences in how much we eat.
Using data from nationally representative surveys, Economic Research Service researchers found that preferences for carrots “vary by race and ethnicity, age, and income,” according to U.S. Department of Agriculture economists Biing-Hwan Lin and Gary Lucier, with non-Hispanic white shoppers and Asian Americans consuming the most carrots.
The USDA number crunchers also found that older, wealthier, and better educated consumers tend to consume more carrots.
“The country is becoming more ethnically diverse, with an influx of Hispanic Americans who tend to eat fewer carrots than the national average,” according to Hwan Lin and Lucier. “At the same time, the U.S. population is growing wealthier, older, and more educated, factors which bode well for greater carrot consumption.”