By: Karen Karp
As you may have suspected, baby carrots are not really babies. The brainchild of a farmer named Mike Yurosek, baby carrots are a relatively recent innovation, dating back only to the late 1980s. The story I heard was that Mike brought a few bunches of misshapen carrots home as his wife was preparing Thanksgiving dinner, and she took them and turned them into small, consistent, thumb-sized carrot-bites for the meal. Much like in this anecdote, the production of baby carrots is kind of like woodworking, as carrots go through a similar process — taking something shaped by nature and whittling it down into the mini-carrot shape.
Following the seasons, the carrots that become baby carrots are cultivated in California, in the Imperial Valley, Central Valley and the Salinas Valley from winter through fall. Wherever they originally take root, the carrots journey to Bakersfield, where they arrive at Bolthouse or Grimmway Farms and are immediately packed in an ice-water bath.
For the rest of their existence, before being devoured by hungry school children in a cafeteria or adults grazing a vegetable tray, the carrots will be kept cool. After being cleaned in a solution of water and a touch of antiseptic chlorine, which is then rinsed off, they go through a sorting process. If they are too thick or too thin, they won’t be wasted — they’ll just wind up as an ingredient in another carrot product, such as juice, smoothies, Bolthouse’s Matchstix carrots or cattle feed.
Once the raw carrots reach the factory, the entire procedure is overseen by engineers in a Star-Trek-like command center perched above the control room, from which they monitor the highly automated process with computers that tell them whether the carrots are making their way through the assembly line in the proper fashion. Optical lasers can spot irregularities in shape or any green tops that made it through the initial sorting.
After the adult carrots have been morphed into babies, they’re put into their pouches. Some will be packed in the one-pound bags you find in supermarket produce aisles, imprinted with brand names like Green Giant or generic names; others will end up in the 2.5 ounce packages served in school cafeterias, as per Department of Agriculture regulations. Some of the smaller packages that are marketed directly to children bear colorful designs, adding to their fun-factor and purposely mimicking junk food.
Once they are packaged and ready for shipping, their temperature is monitored to ensure that the cold chain remains unbroken. There’s even a black box in their shipping containers that produces a tickertape with regular temperature readings, so those who receive the shipment can be sure the carrots have never gone below 36 degrees or above 39 degrees.
These Bakersfield products head out in all directions via train or truck to regional shipment centers. The full journey to the East Coast takes about five days. Most retail distribution centers are located on interstates outside of cities, where it’s more convenient to receive and ship to individual stores. Baby carrots going to schools usually go to terminal markets for produce, like Hunts Point in New York City, where they are purchased by distributors who sell and ship directly to schools, where kids pop them into their mouths at lunchtime.
Karen Karp is founder and president of Karen Karp & Partners, a food-systems consulting firm.