When Myra and Drew Goodman first stuffed their organic baby greens in plastic bags two decades ago, they were just trying to keep their farm afloat and create a quick, healthy alternative to a steady diet of pizza and meals on the go.
They never envisioned that Earthbound Farm's bagged salad would revolutionize the way America eats salad and land them at the top of a leafy green food empire.
"We built our business little by little to meet a demand and didn't realize it was a big business until it had already happened," said Drew Goodman. "Growing organic has paid off."
Two decades later, pre-washed greens pioneered by the Goodmans have catapulted from specialty markets to the aisles of every major grocery store and helped make organic a household name and an US$8 billion annual business.
"They changed the organic game," said Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation. "You used to only be able to get fresh organic products in small stores supplied by an independent farmer. Earthbound ships train loads and plane loads."
Ready-to-eat bags of produce now gross US$2.8 billion a year, and Earthbound continues to lead in the organic department. They produce 73 percent of the greens and baby spinach that go into the US$202 million-a-year organic bagged salad market, according to data from ACNielsen.
The concept was born of necessity in 1986 when the Goodmans were struggling to make money after graduating from different University of California campuses.
The couple agreed to restore a 1 hectare farm in Carmel Valley in exchange for rent and whatever they grew.
They supplied a local chef with smaller, more tender baby vegetables until he left town and left them with hectares of baby lettuce and no buyers.
They began bagging greens for easy, nutritious meals when they came in from work too tired to cook and realized they had a great product, said Myra Goodman.
They started supplying specialty grocery stores with the bagged salads on consignment and soon needed to contract with other organic farmers to meet the demand.
Several chain grocery stores were afraid to sign on at a time when organic producers were small, often could not deliver reliably and were more expensive, they said. But when the discount warehouse chain Costco became the first major retailer to carry their products in 1993, others soon followed, pushing Earthbound into bigger markets.
"Until that time, we were really just a large boutique farm," Myra Goodman said.
Drew, 45, and Myra, 42, got married, purchased the farm and raised their family there.
Today, they market more than 100 different fruits and vegetables grown on 10,500 hectares by hundreds of growers from Washington state to Arizona, delivering their produce to markets around the country.
Earthbound has seen income soar from US$13 million in 1995 to US$365 million last year. Some critics charge large operations like Earthbound with crushing the profit margins of small farms that were the heart of organic farming when it first took off decades ago.
Liz Bourret, who works as a buyer with organic produce distributor Veritable Vegetable, said the small growers are not being pushed out as much as being forced to adapt, focusing on specialty crops, and moving away from mainstays such as lettuce that large growers can produce cheaply.