FIELDS OF DREAMS

FIELDS OF DREAMS

From Chicken Soup for the Entrepreneur's Soul

Fields of Dreams

There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly.

Richard Buckminster Fuller

Had we started farming with the goal of becoming the largest grower of organic produce in the world, we probably would have been daunted into inaction. But Earthbound Farm didn’t start as a grand plan. It was more like a succession of choices that added up to an impact much larger than we could have ever imagined.

When we began in 1984, we were just two New York City kids fresh out of college who wanted a back-to-the-land break before beginning “real jobs” and making our mark. We wanted to get away from elevators and taxi cabs and be absorbed in a world of crickets chirping at twilight and the smell of musty earth beneath a wide-open sky. So we moved to a small raspberry farm tucked in the fertile hills of California’s Carmel Valley and planned to support ourselves by selling berries by the roadside.

Since we knew next to nothing about farming, we welcomed a crash course in growing raspberries from the previous farmer. He showed us how to add synthetic fertilizers to the drip lines and spray fungicides. But something just didn’t feel right to us about putting chemicals on the berries we were going to eat. Amid a sea of naysayers, at a time when organic was virtually unheard of, we found a copy of Rodale’s Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening and set about growing our raspberries . . . organically.

We were altogether seduced by the land. Our driveway was lined with almond, apricot and plum trees, and fig and apple trees dotted the property. We rose at dawn with the roosters and tended the farm until the sun dipped into dusk. We picked grapes from the vines and stomped them into wine, and enjoyed simple meals created from the bounty around us.

As content as we were, we discovered that we couldn’t survive on raspberries alone. We began growing organic baby lettuces and specialty greens and selling them to adventurous local chefs. Our one-year hiatus turned into two, while rows of pristine produce crowded out any thought of “real jobs.” We’d thoroughly settled into the gentle rhythms of farm life when, out of the blue, our bread-and-butter client left the area, and we were left with a field of rapidly maturing baby lettuces and nobody to buy them.

After the initial shock had worn off, we were able to see the challenge as big opportunities. Because we were so busy in the fields all day, we had gotten into the practice of washing and drying a week’s worth of baby greens and storing them in Ziploc bags. Having the convenience of fresh salad every day helped us stay away from junk food when we didn’t have time or energy to cook. It worked so well for us that we had been toying with the idea of marketing the concept, and now we had our chance. We started harvesting, washing and bagging organic baby greens, and set off to try our luck at local specialty stores.

But it was the 1980s, when globes of iceberg dominated the produce section, specialty greens were all but unknown outside of high-end restaurants, and there were no packaged salads at all. We struck a deal with some skeptical grocers; if no one bought our salads, they didn’t have to pay us. But the bags did sell . . . and sell and sell and sell. Before we knew it, our living room had become a packing factory, and organic bagged salads had become our career. Unbeknownst to us, Earthbound Farm had become the first company in America to successfully market bagged salads.

By 1992, we were running a $3 million business out of our 800-square-foot house. It was time to move. We constructed a packing facility on a thirty-two-acre farm we had bought in nearby Watsonville. We thought it would last us forever, but it turned out to be more of a launching pad than a resting place. An unexpected contract with a club store chain in 1993 meant that we would need much more acreage and a larger packing facility to keep up. In a very short period of time we went from being a niche supplier of specialty produce to serving large retail outlets across the country.

Between the fact that the chain didn’t want “organic” on our label (initially they were only interested in the gourmet and convenience aspects of our bagged salads) and the fact that organic cropland was hard to come by, it would have been easy at that point to shrug our shoulders and say, “Well, guess we’ll just forget the organic part.” But we didn’t. Those years on the raspberry farm and having a family of our own (our daughter was born in 1990 and our son in 1992), had heightened our passion for growing organically, providing the healthiest food possible for both people and the planet. “Organic” may not yet have taken hold in main-stream America, but we had already become wholeheartedly devoted to giving people an organic choice.

To keep up with the explosive demand, we needed more land and serious farming expertise. We gained them both by partnering first with Mission Ranches in 1995 and Tanimura & Antle four years later, both multigeneration family-run farms in the Salinas Valley. In the decade following that first partnership, Earthbound Farm grew from 800 organic acres to over 25,000. During 2005 alone, the land we farmed organically kept more than 267,000 pounds of toxic pesticides and 8,432, 000 pounds of synthetic fertilizers out of the environment and preserved nearly 1,383, 000 gallons of petroleum.

We may have started with the humble aspirations of selling a day’s crop of raspberries from a rickety table by the roadside, but the choices we made day after day and year after year to trust our intuition and stay true to our values helped us achieve something we never dreamed possible. Millions of people now enjoy the convenience of organic salads, fruits and vegetables, and the earth is a healthier place because of the company we started over twenty years ago. But the journey isn’t over yet. Each day we become ever more passionate about bringing Earthbound Farm’s mission to fruition: to bring the benefits of organic food to as many people as possible and serve as a catalyst for positive change.

Drew and Myra Goodman

EPILOGUE: Drew and Myra Goodman started farming in their backyard without an ambitious agenda, but Earthbound Farm’s success wound up proving that organic farming was viable on a large scale and could actually feed the world—which was considered a fairytale notion by many at the time. The company is credited with popularizing “spring mix” on the American salad plate as they led the way in prewashed, packaged salad.

Earthbound Farm is now the largest grower of organic produce in the world, and the Goodmans still lead the thriving business, whose farm-fresh organic salads, fruits and vegetables are available in three-quarters of the supermarkets in the United States, as well as in Canada, Mexico and even Taiwan.

Maintaining a strong connection to its roots, the company still operates a roadside farm stand in Carmel Valley, California, just down the road from the location of the original farm. To learn more about Earthbound Farm, visit www.ebfarm.com.

Dahlynn McKowen

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