Three miles east of California’s coastal Highway 1, nestled among the steep hills of the Carmel Valley, the Earthbound Farm roadside farm stand overflows with autumn bounty in the week before Sukkot. A dozen varieties of winter squash lie scattershot across hay bales in the yard, and rows of raspberry bushes languish under the weight of an early season rain. Inside, goat cheese and root beer share shelf space with fresh-baked bread and cut flowers. But it’s a brightly lit refrigerated display at the back wall that catches the eye. There plastic clamshell containers of Earthbound’s signature organic salad greens sit shoulder to shoulder like soldiers at roll call—a sight no doubt familiar to shoppers at thousands of supermarkets across the country that carry the label. Earthbound Farm, the first American company to successfully sell pre-washed, bagged lettuce, is the largest supplier of organic produce in the country.
Just minutes from the affluent seaside town of Carmel, this is where Drew and Myra Goodman, two transplants from the Upper East Side of Manhattan, started selling organic raspberries in 1984. Their company now draws produce from 36,000 acres of farmland spread across six states and five countries, washes and wraps it in recycled plastic containers, and ships it across the continent. Today, Earthbound is available in three-quarters of supermarkets in the United States. If you’re buying organic baby spinach at a Whole Foods in December, chances are it’s from Earthbound.
Myra Goodman, an unlikely organic pioneer, is the face of this agricultural behemoth. The Brooklyn-born daughter of Holocaust survivors, she is an effusive talker, leaping from tales of her childhood to the well-rehearsed story of Earthbound’s founding and back again, peppering the narrative with details of her Rosh Hashanah dinner (“We said all the prayers. We didn’t blow the shofar.”), Drew’s weekly basketball game (“the longest running pickup game in the history of the Valley”), and her support group of local empty-nesters.
Reared in Manhattan, she grew up on East 86th Street, a block away from her future husband. The pair attended the same private high school, the now defunct New Lincoln School, but didn’t meet until they had both relocated to the West Coast for college—she to Berkeley, Drew to Santa Cruz. Their first date occurred when Drew gave Myra a lift to Berkeley for a Grateful Dead show at the Greek Theatre and then invited himself to stay over at her apartment.
“He took me out to dinner and he ordered two entrees,” Goodman recalled. “And then he came back to my apartment. That’s how it started.”
Earthbound’s founding has an equally serendipitous quality. After graduation, the couple moved to a small house in the Carmel Valley and began raising raspberries. Later, they added baby salad greens to the mix, trucking them up to restaurants in San Francisco. Business got so busy that Goodman began washing and bagging enough lettuce to last the couple through the week.
At the time, there was no equipment to aid that process. So, the Goodmans turned to Myra’s father, Mendek Rubin. Born to an Orthodox family in Jaworzno, Poland, in 1924, Rubin was known for his ingenuity: Family lore has it that he developed ways to parcel out precious food rations and conserve heat during his years in Nazi captivity. After the war, Rubin landed in Brooklyn, where he applied his mechanical aptitude to the jewelry business, eventually developing several patents that improved clasps and fasteners for bracelets. “For 14 years, every bangled bracelet in the whole wide world was my father’s snaps,” Goodman said.
But the horrors he endured during the war never left him. When Goodman was young, her father would wake her in the middle of the night to show her where the family gold was hidden. “My dad, with his inventive mind—it was very complicated,” Goodman said. “It was like you open this, and put your hand in, there’s a trap door, and you go like this and you pop this up. You’re 6, and it’s two in the morning and it’s dark, and you’re being told that if the bad guys come and your parents are killed, you hide, and then you come and find the gold to escape. This is how I was raised.”
Rubin eventually helped his daughter and her husband set up a small assembly line in their living room to process salad. He rigged a 4-ounce weight to a bicycle bell to announce when the bags were filled. “It was a Dr. Seuss-kind of thing,” said Goodman. The technological innovations that followed will be featured next year in an exhibit on food history at the Smithsonian in Washington.
The company’s scrappy beginnings have become central to Earthbound’s marketing lore, helping deflect some of the criticism they’ve attracted over the years from folks who hold fast to the notion that the only true organic food is locally grown on a quaint family farm.
“They’re very smart in using that story for their marketing and their image,” said Samuel Fromartz, who profiled the company for his 2006 book Organic Inc. “But it’s not a fictitious story. It’s truly what happened to them.”
The Goodmans like to say that organic farming is “scale neutral,” that there’s nothing inherent to the growing of food without synthetic chemicals that mandates it be done on modest acreage. They proudly point to the millions of chemicals Earthbound has avoided applying to fields, the post-consumer recycled packaging it uses, and the company’s widespread use of biodiesel fuel as evidence of their commitment to sustainable principles.
“If there was more regional food, and there was more food that was a completely closed system, less dependent on fossil fuel and used less packaging, that would be awesome,” said Goodman. “But that is going to happen slowly. We’re able to make a really big impact. It’s not perfect. But it’s so much better than buying something conventional.”
Ben Harris is a writer based in New York City.