Drew and Myra Goodman never planned to become farmers. Two kids from New York City, they graduated from the same high school and made their way to northern California, where Drew went to UC-Santa Cruz, Myra to Berkeley. (She majored in “The Political Economy of Industrial Societies.” Ah, Berkeley. ) Grad school was next on her agenda—Myra anticipated a career in international relations—but she and Drew decided to take a year off to live in a 600-square-foot home in rural Carmel Valley. “A romantic adventure,” she called it.
But, as John Lennon once wrote, “life is what gets in the way when you are making other plans.” Drew and Myra grew raspberries on a two-and-half acre plot, selling them first at a roadside stand, then to restaurants in nearby Carmel. They didn’t know much about farming, but because they didn’t like the smell of the chemical fertilizers and pesticides, they tried organic farming, guided by Rodale’s Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening. They grew salad greens, too, and while they made only $9,800 in their first year, 1984, they decided that grad school could wait. And then wait some more.
A quarter century later, their Earthbound Farm is America’s largest grower of organic produce. Drew and Myra were the first to sell the pre-washed bagged salads that are now on supermarket shelves everywhere, and they dominate that market. Today, Earthbound processes and markets more than 100 varieties of salads, vegetables and fruit, gathered from about 150 farmers who tend 35,000 organically-farmed acres from British Columbia to Mexico. Earthbound Farm products are available in 75% of supermarkets across the country, and the firm makes store brands for chains like Costco, Safeway and Trader Joe’s. Annual revenues top $400 million.
Talk about organic growth!
“We’ve been sprinting nonstop,” says Drew, just to keep up. Things eased up a bit lately after he chose to step down as CEO of Earthbound to become head of strategy. Myra oversees marketing and writes cookbooks, including Food to Live By” The Earthbound Farm Organic Cooking, which tells their story. (I can personally vouch for her recipe for Whole Wheat Penne with Edamame, Portobellos, and Slow-Roasted Tomatoes, which my wife cooked this evening. I’ve posted the recipe below.)
I met Myra and Drew last week during Cooking for Solutions, a conference and foodfest sponsored by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Myra was on a panel that I moderated about business and sustainability, and the next day they hosted about 100 reporters and chefs for a delicious organic lunch under sunny skies at Earthbound’s farm stand, near their original farm. I enjoyed their company so much that I didn’t take many notes, which is why there are so few quotes in this blogpost.
We talked some about the reasons why the organic industry, which has grown steadily for years, still remains small. Less than 1 percent of farmland is farmed organically. Price, is, of course, the big issue—people can’t or don’t want to pay more for organic food. Interestingly, Earthbound Farms’ business took off not just because customers cared about organic but because they liked the convenience of pre-washed, bagged salads.
This innovation, too, was unplanned. As Myra tells the story in Food to Live By, she and Drew were working very long hours and found they were too tired to cook each night. So they made a habit on Sundays of harvesting, washing and drying a week’s worth of baby greens, and making fresh vinaigrette dressing from lemons that grew on the property. The salads stayed fresh, to their surprise. Soon after, faced with a surplus of baby greens, they took bagged salads to local health food stores and they sold very well. Myra’s father, Mendek Rubin, designed the first production line — in their living room! She writes:
We would fill a huge mesh basket with greens, dunk and swirl them in the first sink, haul out the basket with (a) rope and pulley system, then repeat the washing process in the second and third sinks. For our drying system, we used restaurant salad spinners, and absorbed any leftover moisture by shaking the salad in giant terry cloth sacks made from bath towels.
Amazing. Today, Earthbound Farms produces more than 30 million salad servings a week.
“I’m proud,” Myra told me, “because I do think we are making a difference.” Their kind of farming is good for the environment, good for farmworkers, good for people who live in neighborhoods near the farms and, she says, good for human health, although the argument that eating organic food is better for you remains unproven.
So why aren’t more farmers growing organic food? Basically because they have to charge more for it that consumers will pay. One reason Earthbound’s mixed greens have done so well—organic mixed greens account have more than 40% market share in the category—is that they are priced only slightly higher than conventional produce. Why? Because baby greens stay in the ground for as little as 21 days, which means they don’t require much, if any, weeding, organic fertilizer or pest-control methods as do vegetables like carrots, celery, broccoli or cauliflower that stay in the ground much longer. Even more costly is organic milk because cows need to be fed so much organic grain to make it. This kind of thing never occurs to those of us who a more likely to fly over farmland than to walk on it.
Organic foods cost more also cost more to grow because some farmland is typically set aside to grow flowers to attract beneficial insects like ladybugs that will eat unwanted pests. So per-acre yields are lower. Plus, organic farming is more management intensive and labor intensive.
This is why, in general, so-called Big Organic is to be welcomed and not feared: Organic food would be even more expensive were it not for the economies of scale that benefit Earthbound. And to see organic farming spread further, costs need to come down.
Here’s the Whole Wheat Penne recipe, the first ever on this blog. Healthy and delicious!
Whole Wheat Penne with Edamame, Portobellos, and Slow-Roasted Tomatoes
Edamame is in the spotlight here. These soybeans look like little green gemstones hidden among the strips of intensely flavored tomatoes and hearty portobellos. Edamame also make an appearance in the pesto-like puree that coats the pasta. Admittedly, this dish has a lot of components, but all the elements add up to layers of incredible flavor.
About 1 cup shelled, fresh or frozen (unthawed) edamame (soy beans, from 1 pound unshelled)
2 cups (8 ounces) dried whole wheat penne
1/4 cup olive oil
2 large portobello mushroom caps (about 8 ounces total), sliced 1/4-inch thick
1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
2 tablespoons dry white wine or water
2/3 cup sliced Slow-Roasted Tomatoes (page 383), or 2/3 cup sliced sun-dried tomatoes (see sidebar, page 242)
1/2 cup minced fresh basil
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
Pinch of dried red pepper flakes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup Edamame Pesto (recipe follows)
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Basil sprigs (optional), for garnish
1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the edamame and cook until tender, 4 to 5 minutes. Drain the edamame in a strainer, transfer them to a bowl, and set aside.
2. Let the water return to a boil, add the penne, and cook according to the package directions.
3. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat and add the mushrooms. Cook, stirring occasionally, until they begin to soften, about 2 minutes. Add the garlic and wine and stir to combine. Cover the skillet, reduce the heat to medium low, and cook until the mushrooms are tender, about 5 minutes.
4. Add the edamame and the tomatoes, basil, thyme, and pepper flakes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Cook until the tomatoes are warmed through, about 3 minutes.
5. Drain the penne in a colander, setting aside 1 cup of the pasta cooking water. Return the penne to the pot. Add 1/2 cup of the Edamame ?Pesto? and stir to combine. If the pasta is too dry, add 1/3 cup or more of the reserved pasta cooking water.
6. Add the mushroom mixture to the pot with the pasta and stir to combine. Taste for seasoning, adding more Edamame ?Pesto,? salt, pepper, or pasta cooking water, if needed.
7. Transfer the pasta to a serving platter or pasta bowls, and sprinkle the Parmesan cheese on top. Serve immediately, garnished with basil, if desired.
Edamame are fresh soybeans, pale green and oval, about the size of a fingernail.
Look for them in the grocer’s freezer section, although sometimes you can find them fresh. They are very nutritious, and when pureed like a pesto, with garlic, lemon, parsley, and pine nuts, their usually mild taste comes alive. Serve this unusual pesto on pasta, or spread it on thin baguette slices or crackers for a quick appetizer. It’s great spread on sandwiches instead of mayonnaise, too.
Makes about 3/4 cup
3/4 cup shelled, fresh or frozen (unthawed) edamame (soybeans, from 3/4 pound unshelled)
1 clove garlic
3 tablespoons pine nuts
1/2 cup (packed) flat-leaf parsley leaves
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon salt
1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the edamame and cook until tender, 4 to 5 minutes. Drain the edamame in a strainer and set aside to cool completely.
2. Place the edamame in a food processor or blender and add the garlic, pine nuts, and parsley. Process until coarsely pureed, stopping to scrape down the side of the bowl once or twice.
3. Add the olive oil, lemon juice, and salt and process to combine, about 30 seconds. The ?pesto? will not be completely smooth. The pesto can be refrigerated, covered, for up to 5 days, or frozen for up to 3 months.