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The Carrot Kings : Bakersfield Triumvirate Is Tops in the Field

August 15, 1993|DONALD WOUTAT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Carrots are on the move all around here, uprooted by gigantic, self-propelled harvesters that travel faster than a man can walk and enable three workers to pick 75 tons--roughly a million individual carrots--in one hour.

Trucked to packing sheds, the carrots become a bobbing sea of orange in a maze of conveyor belts, coolers, scrubbers, slicers, sizers, peelers and baggers. Less than 24 hours after being wrenched from the ground, they're ready to hit the road.

"Don't you get sick of carrots?" Bob Grimm of Grimmway Farms is asked as he looks down at the slow-moving ribbons of orange that crisscross his plant in every conceivable direction and at every possible angle. "I don't have time to think about it," he replies.

Indeed. The carrot's time has arrived--and with it Bob Grimm, his brother Rod (they are known locally as "the Brothers Grimm") and two other major growers that form the crop's Big Three, a not-so-chummy fraternity around Bakersfield.

Once considered small potatoes in the supermarket produce section, carrots barely held their own against more exotic fare. They were grown and shipped by hundreds of small operators largely unschooled in the kind of marketing and self-promotion pioneered by California raisins and Florida oranges.

"They were just there--kind of flat, if you know what I mean," says Ed Odron, a produce vice president at Lucky Stores.

The drab image faded when growers came up with the wildly popular--if misnamed--fresh "baby carrot," a two-to-three-inch, pre-peeled section from a bigger carrot that consumers could not get enough of.

In just a few years, these mini-carrots have achieved a popularity that speaks volumes about lifestyle and dietary changes in America.

They are convenient, they'll last for weeks and they're low in fat and calories. A stream of credible medical studies has linked beta carotene--the pigment that makes carrots orange--to the prevention of heart disease, strokes and some forms of cancer. Today's carrots are bred to have twice the beta carotene of a decade ago.

All this has jacked up nationwide demand for the carrot in its various forms by 40% since 1985, even as costly efforts to tap into the exploding market have knocked scores of competitors out of the "carrot deal," as growers call this corner of agriculture.

That has left the Big Three to dominate the deal. Together, Grimmway Farms, Mike Yurosek & Sons and the biggest of all, Bolthouse Farms--family operators all--shipped 80% of California's carrots and accounted for half the record $338-million U.S. carrot market last year.

"I would say we have an oligopolistic industry," acknowledges Dave Yurosek, who has taken over Yurosek & Sons from his father Mike, now retired.

Overall, California's growers and shippers supplied a total of 62% of the burgeoning U.S. market last year--up from 50% in 1980.

But the state's long drought and competition elsewhere have made that growth track a scramble. California farmers have expanded acreage by two-thirds, acquired large fleets of harvesters and thrown up expensive new automated packing sheds.

Even big corporations have been unable to keep up in this arena. Dole Food Co. lags well behind the Big Three, and Grimmway recently paid a reported $8 million to buy the carrot arm of Shell Oil Co.'s Belridge Farms, a major farming operation that the oil company got with its $3.65-billion purchase of Belridge Oil Co. in 1979.

Carrots aren't rocket science, necessarily. But they do demand attention to fast-paced marketing developments, along with quick action on such technological wrinkles as machine vision, which spots bad carrots and blasts them off the conveyor belts with laser-like shots of air.

It is all very expensive.

"That's why everybody and their grandmother isn't in the business," says Bob Grimm, who bought his machine-vision system last year with $400,000 in borrowed money. "If we tried to get in it today, we couldn't. But that system will pay for itself in two years. We used to have 150 people doing that work."

The Grimms, who grew corn and carrots as teen-agers in Anaheim and sold them from roadside stands, arrived in Di Giorgio, near Bakersfield, in 1981. They are the newcomers. The Yuroseks got into the carrot deal in 1939, down in Santa Clarita, and later moved to nearby Lamont. Bill Bolthouse, another lifelong carrot man, moved his carrot enterprise to Bakersfield from Michigan in 1973.

Kern County has replaced the Imperial Valley as the state's top carrot region, but the three mega-growers produce carrots from strategically chosen fields in both areas, as well as regions farther north. They also buy from about 150 small growers in the state.

The harvests are timed to cover all 12 months, and the acreage is planned to exploit the especially profitable times of the year when other carrot states--mainly Michigan, Florida and Texas--are out of business.

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