For the second time in three years, San Juan Bautista-based Earthbound Farm, has been sold, this time, to Danone SA, a French dairy company. Earthbound Farm, the leading organic grower-shipper in the U.S., first sold in 2013 to WhiteWave Foods Co., a Broomfield, Colorado-based milk producer that sells Silk, Horizon, International Delight, and Land O’ Lakes brands.
The 2013 sale included 90 percent of the company for nearly $600 million. Earthbound Farm’s founders Myra and Drew Goodman retained 10 percent, or an estimated $60 million. At the time of the sale, Earthbound Farm, which employed nearly 1,200 seasonal workers—making it the largest employer in the county—earned approximately $75 million annually, according to a report in The Packer, a fresh produce industry newspaper.
In the sometimes twisted path of corporate ownership, Earthbound Farm was not only owned by WhiteWave, but was included in a spin-off from its parent company, Dean Foods, to stand alongside another holding, Horizon Organic Dairy, the largest organic dairy in the nation, according to The Corporate Institute.
Once again, Earthbound Farm was part of a packaged deal, as Danone SA acquired WhiteWave and its corporate holdings for more than $12.5 billion, its largest acquisition since 2007, according to Reuters. Minus debt, the sale is worth $10.4 billion.
From the Reuters story: “The company (WhiteWave) generates $4 billion in sales and Danone said it would be able to achieve synergies of $300 million by 2020, representing eight percent of WhiteWave’s 2015 sales, and 80 percent of WhiteWave 2015 earnings before interest and taxes.”
According to Earthbound Farm’s online biography, it was founded by the Goodmans in 1984 as a rented 2.5-acre raspberry patch and farm stand in Carmel Valley, making $10,000 the first year, and eventually going on to control nearly 60 percent of the bagged organic salad market in the United States.
In 1986, it was the first company to launch pre-washed salad packaged for retail sale; and in 1992 it moved its operations to a 32-acre farm in Watsonville, and built a 9,000-square-foot production facility. Soon, the company was selling its salad greens to major food retailers, including Costco, Lucky, Safeway, and Albertson’s. In 1995, it partnered with Mission Ranches, a group of third-generation farmers from the Salinas Valley, bringing in an additional 800 acres of organic farmland to the partnership. It was in 1996 that Earthbound Farm moved into its headquarters and began processing at its 25,000-square-foot facility in San Juan Bautista. With 5,800 acres farmed organically, in 1998, Earthbound Farm was the largest grower of organic produce in the country, which it still is today.
The company continued to expand and prosper, growing to more than 47,000 acres producing organic fruits and vegetables, but not without a serious setback in 2006, when an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 spread from a cattle ranch in Paicines, to a nearby field of organic spinach that was contracted to Earthbound Farm and ultimately sold as conventional spinach, rather than organic. The outbreak spread to 26 states, where 199 people were sickened, three died, and 31 suffered kidney failures.
After a voluntary recall, numerous costly lawsuits, and a total restructuring of its inspection methodology, in which it screens all product for a number of E. coli strains, Earthbound Farm rebounded and was sold seven years later. The company has included information on its website on its food safety program at http://www.earthboundfarm.com/sites/default/files/media/Food-Safety14.pdf.
BenitoLink’s requests for further details on how the sale might affect the local economy or employment were referred by Earthbound Farm to WhiteWave Foods, which did not respond by publication time.