If you type the word “carrot” into Google Images, you get thousands of photos of the classic root vegetable. They’re all full-length, orange, straight, and pointy. Which is a little odd, because 70% of all the carrots we buy are, in fact, baby carrots.

Or at least we think they’re baby carrots. Turns out baby carrots aren’t baby at all. And the story of their creation is twisty, uplifting, and super satisfying. It’s all about a California carrot farmer with a distaste for waste—and a frustrated ex-wife. 

Guests: Jeff Huckaby, President and CEO of Grimmway Farms, and David Yurosek, co-originator of Bunny Luv baby carrots

Intro

Baby carrots. They’re on every Superbowl snack platter. They’re in millions of school lunches. They’re the carrots in cooked carrots. They’re 70% of the carrots we buy, because we don’t have to wash’em, cut ‘em, or peel ‘em.

But here’s the little secret about baby carrots:

JEFF: Well, they’re not actually baby carrots. They’re harvested as a full-size carrot, taken into the facility where they’re cut into two-inch pieces and peeled and put in a bag.

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I’m David Pogue, and this is “Unsung Science.”

Episode Transcript

If you ask a little kid to draw a carrot, they’ll grab the orange crayon and draw the classic shape: Long, skinny, pointy at the end. Which is super weird, because odds are fairly good they’ve never eaten anything like that in their lives. 

The carrots they have encountered are almost certainly baby carrots. Two inches long, rounded at both ends, already peeled and washed, delicious and ready to eat. 70% of all the carrots we buy are, in fact, baby carrots.

But, as promised by the title of this episode, baby carrots harbor a big secret. So let’s get that out of the way right up front. The secret of baby carrots is this:

JEFF: Well, they’re not actually baby carrots. They are pieces of carrots. They are indeed grown specifically to cut into two-inch pieces.

That’s Jeff Huckaby, the president and CEO of Grimmway Farms, which is the biggest carrot grower on the planet. And how big is big?

JEFF: Grimmway Farms grows about 45,000 acres of carrots across the country. It equates to about 10 million pounds of carrots every day, six days a week, 52 weeks out of the year. It’s a lotta carrots.

POGUE: Ten million pounds a day.

JEFF: People really like carrots. 

We were sitting right next to one of his carrot farms in Bakersfield, California. Beautiful, bright-green crops in tidy rows stretched as far as the eye could see. They were about two weeks from being ready to harvest.

And there’s a reason this farm is in Bakersfield: It’s a hot, dry place. 

JEFF: Carrots are grown mostly in very arid regions like Bakersfield. We do this for a reason. / you want to be able to time the irrigation so that you can stretch the root as long as possible and have it search for water.

So when you get in these– climates where you have a lot of rainfall, you get a little short, stubby carrot because it feeds from the– the surface. So we try to drive these– carrots down as much as possible. 

POGUE: We have a garden in Connecticut. I tried so hard to grow carrots. Just never succeeded.

JEFF: No one can in their garden. It–

POGUE: What?

JEFF: No one can. It’s because the soil has to be so– you know– loose down to two to three feet. And you’re not gonna sit there and rip your dirt into where it’s very pliable for two to three feet down–

POGUE: They don’t tell you that–

JEFF: Yeah, that’s why people can’t be very successful in their garden.

Anyway. Grimmway has designed and built its own carrot-harvesting machine. It’s a sight to behold.

SFX of harvester

JEFF: So you can’t just go buy a carrot harvester off the the shelf over at your local tractor dealer. So we build ‘em. They come through. And it takes three people basically. You have the driver. You have a guy on the back making sure the carrots are handled properly. And we can do about 25 tons of carrots about every 15 or 20 minutes. 

25 tons every 15 minutes!? Are you tracking this? That is SO MANY carrots! 

Anyway. The harvester machine dumps them all into a truck rolling alongside it.

JEFF: And then truck is shuttled from here about a mile away to our facility. And then at that point, they’re washed out. They go through a wash-out process that– you got a big boom of water. It washes, puts– recycled water on it that we’re reusing over and over again. And then we’ll change out every day or so. 

POGUE: Well, here’s– here’s where I revolutionize the carrot industry a second time. Since they’re going to be peeled for us, why do you need to wash them first?

JEFF: They come out dirty. You’re dealing with a root that comes and it’s grown in the dirt. (cont’d) /- you will see when you’re harvesting, you bring a lotta dirt in with it. And so the carrot has to be really cleaned and scrubbed before you can actually peel it and cut it and put it in a bag and– and– and consider it ready to eat.

POGUE: Okay, so how does it get cut? It’s not you with a knife, I take it.

JEFF: It’s not. There wasn’t a carrot cutter out there available that we could go buy off the shelf and do it. So we kinda took some other technologies and then adapted it. And we’ve come out with– a model that we really like. We build it ourselves and– and adjust it to get the two-inch– carrot out of the long, you know, ten, 12, 14-inch carrot.

The machine they adapted was originally designed for cutting beans.

JEFF: There were a number of things taken from other industries that said, “You know– just with some minor modifications, we can make that work on the– for the carrots.” The bean cutter has been by far the best cutter that we have found. We just had to lengthen the throat a little bit. The carrot’s a lot longer. And it– as it drops down it just takes a two-inch piece out.

At this point, I grabbed a juicy orange baby carrot out of the bag and held it up in the sun. 

POGUE: And then once they’ve been cut, this has somehow been rounded and peeled.

JEFF: That’s correct. So when– after the– the product is cut, it still has the outer layer and the skin on it. And so it goes through a series of a peeler and then a polisher. And it’s basically s– similar to sandpaper, grit rolls that it goes through. And as it goes through and tumbles, it has a tendency to round off the little end a little bit and then remove the skin. And then you have a fine polish that really makes it have a nice smooth finish and gets the final touches of the the skin off. And then we go through and then put it into the bags.

[MUX]

OK, the first secret is out: Baby carrots aren’t baby at all. 

But here’s a second secret: Baby carrots were invented to hide nature’s ugliness from our picky, picky eyes. And they were invented—by this man.

YUROSEK: My name is David Yurosek. My father and I owned a company called “Mike Yurosek and Son,” and we were the originators of– of the Bunny Luv baby carrots.

Mrs. Yurosek—David’s mom—came up with the name Bunny Luv for the family’s carrots. L-U-V, love.

[MUX]

Mrs. Yurosek was also a talented artist, so she also came up with the company logo—which looks for all the world like Bugs Bunny in an apron. Warner Brothers was not pleased.

YUROSEK: Warner Bros. sued us. It looked too much like Bugs Bunny. My father gave it to my mother and said, “Figure somethin’ out.” 

She drew a sheaf of variations of that cartoon bunny, and the Yuroseks sent them off to Warner Brothers’ lawyers, with an invitation to choose a logo that they would find acceptable. They did, and that’s the version you see on the bags today.

POGUE: Still looks kinda like Miss Bugs Bunny.

YUROSEK: Yeah, we thought so. But, you know, Warner Bros. accepted it, so that’s all we care.

Anyway. The logo lawsuit wasn’t the Yuroseks’s biggest headache. The waste was. It was a distressing fact of modern carrot farming: You had to throw away a huge fraction of your crop. 

YUROSEK: 35 to 45% of our carrots were rejected because of cosmetic situations. We couldn’t even feed ‘em to our cattle, ‘cause the fat would turn orange, and so that didn’t work. So we had really no viable alternative to utilize that product. 

And why would you go to the trouble of raising delicious, nutritious carrots and then throw 400 tons of them away, every single day?

YUROSEK: Well, carrots are basically– like any fruit or vegetable, are cosmetic. If it doesn’t look good, they’re not gonna buy it. But the nutrition and everything else is still there. 

POGUE: What are we talkin’ about? A little discoloration? Or bent? Or–

YUROSEK: Bent, broken. Carrots get broken when they come in, so nobody– a consumer doesn’t wanna buy a broken carrot that’s broken in half. They’re bent. And then we got involved with developing hybrid carrots. They’re very beautiful carrots, sweet, but they also were very susceptible to different types of diseases. We started having something called “cavity spotting,” where there– a carrot is like– you know, has little root hairs that come out; eyelets, so to speak. And they would– that cavity spotting would affect that. There’s also– it had a disease called “black crown,” which the whole top of the carrot would kinda turn black. So those are some of the two biggest problems we were having in the sense of cosmetics. And so consequently, you know, that’s what kinda drove me, as to say, “Okay, how do we do something with that product and make it sellable to the consumer?”

And by the way—why are so many carrots misshapen? Here’s Jeff Huckaby again.

JEFF: If you went out and dug in this field, just due to defects with– the carrot hits a rock and– and is crooked, or it splits, or you’ve got some damage– you know, due to nematodes or something. No one wants a carrot that’s crooked or split or something. Still eats well, but the consumer wants a nice, straight, orange– smooth carrot.

POGUE: We’re the consumers. We’re the ones who say, “I’m not gonna eat that carrot. It’s bent.” Do you as an industry person, as a grower, do you think that that’s an absurd position?

JEFF: Well, I do. I mean, because there’s nothing wrong with the carrot other than appearance. The consumer is kinda trained to have that picturesque carrot that is tapered nicely, that’s smooth, that– is nice and straight. They all eat equally as well. And, you know, we get a lot of people that when the baby carrot gets in the bag, it will have a split to it. And those are the carrots I eat. Because the split is usually because it’s got more sugar in it than the others.

Anyway—baby carrots were a brilliant solution! Once a carrot’s been cut and peeled and polished before you even see it, you have no idea how bent or crooked or spotted the original carrot was. Everybody wins: You’re spared all the effort of washing, cutting, and peeling, and the farmers can use the 40% of the crop they would have thrown away.

Now, if you Google hard enough, you can find writeups of that origin story, about how the baby carrot was developed to let farmers sell their ugly carrots. 

[THEME]

But there’s a second origin story that’s never been told—the moment that pushed David Yurosek over the brink, that finally sent him to the baby-carrot drawing board.

It’s the ex-wife story—an “Unsung Science” exclusive. And after the break…you’ll hear it!

Ad Break

[MUX]

Now, most people telling the origin story of baby carrots mention the economic incentive that the Mike Yurosek and his son David had. They wanted to find a way to sell the nearly 40% of their crop that had cosmetic glitches, that we, the people, were too picky to eat.

But the baby carrot idea also solved a second problem—an interpersonal one. Here’s David Yurosek again.

YUROSEK: My ex-wife, Terry, made this meal that was carrots. It was cut-up carrots. She told me, “Why can’t you do somethin’ like this, so I don’t spend three hours, you know, in a kitchen, making it?” 

POGUE: So she was taking three hours, doing what? Cutting ‘em–

YUROSEK: Cutting them and peeling ‘em.

Of course, she could have used pre-cut frozen carrots, which were a big deal at that time, in 1985. But Terry would have none of it.

YUROSEK: Had to be fresh. She told me, “These got to be fresh.” Frozen carrots and canned carrots lose about 35-40% of the nutritional value. And so that’s when I said, “Okay, we’ll see what we can do.” And I went the next day and thought about it and brought a couple of my guys in and said, “We need to figure out how to do this.”

I gotta hand it to Dave Yurosek. To prepare for our interview, he’d spent a few days calling up former colleagues and employees to piece together the details. 

YUROSEK: We had some great people. A couple of ‘em have passed away, Sid Brown and– and Kent Williams. Kent Williams came up with the idea of having what we called a “focus group.” And I said, “What is a focus group?” And he looked at me. Said, “You don’t know what it is?”

The Yuroseks OK’ed the focus group. This was a big moment. They’d spent millions of dollars developing these two-inch, ready-to-cook carrots, in hopes of appealing to home cooks like Terry… in hopes of displacing some of the frozen carrots that people were using in their cooking. The focus group was asked the critical question: Would you cook with these?

YUROSEK: And so he came back and says, “I’ve got good news and bad news.” And I said, “Well– give me the good news first.” And he says, “They love the carrots.” So I said, “Love the carrots? What can the bad news be?” He said, “They don’t want it for cooking.” I said, “What do ya mean?” “They want ‘em for– to use ‘em for snacks. They loved it, just to sit– put ‘em in dip, and do this and that.” I said, “Kent, that’s great news. I thought you wanted to cook ‘em.” I said, “Now we’re in what I call a snack industry. We’re against Fritos, potato chips,” and I said, “Now that’s a multi-billion-dollar industry we can compete against.” And at that point, basically it was kinda the– if you say the old thing of “Eureka” for me, I said, “Guys, damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead!” And so we built a plant. We retrofitted the plant that we had.

POGUE: So the original idea was not then necessarily for snacking?

YUROSEK: No.

POGUE: You thought for cookin’?

YUROSEK: Yep. Yeah, my wife– going back to the story I told ya, I gotta make somethin’ where the housewife can cook faster.

POGUE: So was the focus group the first indication that you had, that this could be gigantic?

YUROSEK: I don’t know if we thought it was gigantic. It was the first time that — we obviously didn’t know how big it was going to be, but we realized that we had something that was feasible. 

Now, if you’ve been listening closely, you realize that the Night of the Ex-Wife Carrot Dish took place in 1985, and baby carrots ultimately hit the market in 1990. So what took five years?

Turns out it wasn’t so easy to develop this new carrot format.

YUROSEK: A lot of times we had train wrecks, you know? We thought we had the idea; then it didn’t work. Example– we– when we finally got to the point we could put ‘em in a bag, okay– the bag would just go like a balloon. And we’re kinda looking– “What’s wrong with this bag?” Well, it was the fact that the carrots have to breathe. They’re still respirating.

POGUE: Huh.

YUROSEK: And so then we came with the idea– a very simple idea. We put a thumbtack on a roller where the bags came down, and the thumbtack put a little hole in ‘em. Solution to the problem. For three or four years, we used that concept.

But letting the extra air out of the bags was only the beginning of the problems.  

YUROSEK: This guy came and said, “Dave, I wanna show ya somethin’.” I said, “Yeah?” He said, “See this– these carrots have all turned white?” And I go, “Yeah.” “Look at the ends of ‘em.” And he’d cut ‘em with a knife. They weren’t white. And so then he put it under a microscope, and he said, “Look at all this roughness on the carrot, is what turns ‘em white and then causes the oxidation.” But where it’s smooth, that’s not there, so there isn’t that process.

The cut ends of the carrot never turned white. Only the sides, which had been polished by the sandpaper machines.

YUROSEK: The thing is to try to do it, you know, knife to cut it very clean and everything else, to kinda peel it just by hand, to see what would happen. And they all stayed orange. And so we went back to the company that made these peelers. We went back to them and said, “Can you put different grit in these?” And the grit, again, is like the sandpaper. So we were using like an 80 grit. And he said, “Yeah, we can go– we can go to a finer grit.” So we said, “Okay, let’s go to– let’s try– let’s try a– 50.” Well, that didn’t work. “Let’s try a 30.” That didn’t work. We kept going down on that grit. Finally got down to a 20, and then we said, “Okay.”

They’d finally gotten the carrot pieces so smooth, they no longer turned white shortly after being cut.

But to this day, baby carrots do start turning white once they’ve been exposed to the air a while. Here’s how Jeff Huckaby explains it:

JEFF: We’ve taken and scraped the skin off. And so it’s a little bit of an oxidation that happens– as it dries out.  And– you know, temperature a little bit. So the colder they stay and under the ideal conditions, that whiting doesn’t go there. You can take this and put it back into water, and boom, all of a sudden it rehydrates. The whiting goes away. 

But the question remained: How do you stop carrots from getting dry in the bag? In shipping? In the store shelves? The Yuroseks confronted yet another showstopper. They’d just traded one cosmetic problem for another one.

YUROSEK: They started– you know, getting dry in the bag.

POGUE: Oh–

YUROSEK: So we said, “Okay, what do we do about that?” You know, and Mark Bunch came up with this idea of putting water right as the bag was being sealed, and it would shoot a little shot of water in it. And so he built this contraption. These machines go like this: the bag comes down, and it drops the carrots, and it goes like this. 

He’s demonstrating with his hands how the carrots fall vertically into the open bag below them.

YUROSEK: (cont’d) Each time I’d do that, I’d shoot a little bit of water into it before the clamp would close to seal it. And all of a sudden that problem wasn’t there.

POGUE: Wow–

YUROSEK: So it just– it was just a series of figurin’ out what to do. 

Finally, after five years of problem solving, the family was ready to start selling to grocery stores.

When the Yuroseks did the math, it looked like everyone would come out ahead. Yeah, consumers would much pay more for baby carrots per pound—but they were getting a lot more carrot. When you buy full-size carrots, you waste a lot of what you’ve bought. 

YUROSEK: They’ve gotta peel it and you gotta cut the top off. You can’t eat that. You gotta cut maybe the tip of the carrot off. You can’t use that. There’s a lot more throwaway. So you’re paying for that. So that’s when I started talking with buyers, you know, like– Stop & Shop, who was the first one that bought carrots from us. I explained to the buyers– I’d say, “You know, there’s no waste in this. There’s no waste in that bag there. Everything can be used.” I told ‘em, “look at your profit. If you sell 1 million pounds of carrots a month, at this, you’re gonna make X amount of dollars.” 

(cont’d):  I had this all figured out, and I showed him. I said, “Well, try it and see what happens.” And so he did and found out that it was– it was true. He made more money with those than he did with the regular carrots. And so they all of a sudden started expanding the shelf space for the cut-and-peeled and carrots like that.

Within one year, Americans were buying more than twice as many carrots as before—from six pounds a year per person, to 10 pounds—all because the cut-and-peeled models were so convenient. 

Now, in the beginning, what made the Yuroseks miserable was that they had too many carrots with cosmetic defects. But now, with the exploding popularity of baby carrots, they didn’t have enough! 

YUROSEK: All of a sudden we didn’t have enough product for our cut-and-peeled. So we started actually sending regular carrots, you know, a certain size over to the plant. We started using– stealing from Peter to give to Paul, if you will.

Now the company was using perfectly straight, long, unblemished carrots—for baby carrots. Eventually, they started growing new fields of carrots exclusively for cutting and peeling into baby-carrot bags. 

At that point, it was only a small logical leap to realize: Maybe they should start breeding special varieties for baby carrots. Here’s Jeff Huckaby.

JEFF: We are growing specific varieties for cut and peel. You know, the older, full-size carrot had a little bit of a core inside it. So when you would cut it, you could see the core. So a lot of the breeding over the years has been to try to reduce that core just for a better palate. So that, you know, when you crunched it, you didn’t have a hard center or anything. They have a tendency to be a little sweeter.

Carrots have come a long way since the bad old days of 1985, when 40% of the crop wound up getting thrown away. These days, carrots are one of the least wasteful crops in the world. Grimmway Farms uses every millimeter of every carrot.  

JEFF: So we need as many two-inch pieces out of a carrot as we can get. Usually the top piece, because this is where the crown attachment is, is not the most aesthetically pleasing piece. So we usually chop this off. But it’s still usable. We’re still able to take that. You can still shred it and make– shredded carrots for the salad companies. Or a lot of it can go into juice. Nothing wrong with it.

(cont’d) So if you taken that piece off, you have one, two, maybe three, sometimes four actual cuts. The longer the carrot, the more cuts that we get. And then there’s a different size. It’s thicker at the top, and then it tapers down to where the smaller could be what we consider a “carrotini.” And it goes into, like, the little one and two-ounce bags for the school lunches. So it’s a petite little piece off the end.

POGUE: Carrotinis.

JEFF: Yes.

POGUE: Never heard that term in my life.

JEFF: Yes, that’s what we call the little ones. And– and– that’s the ones that you see mostly in the schools in the little snack packs.

POGUE: But what about all the pulpy stuff that is polished away?

JEFF: From a tonnage standpoint — is very minimal. It gets hauled off to cattle feed. The dairy menwill take it. And they’ll mix it with their rations and stuff. And it becomes a really good food supplement that are given to the cows.

POGUE: And how about the greens? Does that go anywhere?

JEFF: We’ve tried– using them as animal feed. But we found that it’s better as an organic matter to just turn them back under and put ‘em in the field.

POGUE: How about this idea? You get a bean cutter. You cut ‘em into two-inch segments. You market them–

JEFF: Market– carrot tops.

Yurosek and Sons went on to develop packages of carrot curls, carrot sticks, and shredded carrots; at one point, they even tried to develop actual baby carrots—carrots that were still tiny when fully grown. But nothing ever approached the success of the baby carrots. Eventually, the Yuroseks cashed out; they sold Bunny Luv to their rival, Grimmway Farms.

But the effects of their invention weren’t limited to carrots.

YUROSEK: All the industry saw, “Wait a minute. These guys have got these carrots. We can do this with lettuce. We can do this with broccoli. We can do this with cauliflower.”

(cont’d) People started going to salads. You know, broccoli spears. Every time I walk into a produce section of a store, I kinda smile and see all these things and go, “Yeah, we– we were the ones that created that,” you know?

POGUE: So it wasn’t just baby carrots that this idea launched? It was a domino effect?

YUROSEK: Yes, sir. You know, in those days– probably 100% of what was on the produce shelf in the store was vegetables in their original form, so to speak.

[MUX]

POGUE: I mean, everywhere you go, you see baby carrots. Do you take pride every time you see that?

YUROSEK: I don’t try to say it’s me. You know, it was a team that did this. The Wright brothers, you know, they started out wanting to fly an airplane. They did. Thomas Alva Edison wanted to make a light bulb. He did, you know? So you kinda have that great moment that you feel, “We did it,” you know? So, you know, so it’s nice to still walk in a store and see ‘em there. And I go, “All right.” Tell my wife, “That was me. Man, we did that,” you know?

UNSUNG SCIENCE with David Pogue is presented by Simon & Schuster and CBS News, and produced by PRX Productions.  

Executive Producers for Simon & Schuster are Richard Rhorer and Chris Lynch.  

The PRX production team is Jocelyn Gonzales, Morgan Flannery, Pedro Rafael Rosado and Morgan Church

Jesi Nelson composed the Unsung Science theme music, and our fact checker is Kristina Rebelo. Special thanks to Olivia Noble
For more on the show, visit unsungscience.com. Go to my website at David Pogue.com or follow me: @Pogue on your social media platform of choice. Be sure to like and FOLLOW Unsung Science wherever you get your podcasts.