Imagine you're a farmer working under the hot sun in Bakersfield, Calif., where daytime temperatures in September average nearly 90 degrees.
You grow carrots, which take 12 weeks to reach full maturity. After watering, fertilizing and then harvesting your crop, you load your carrots onto trucks and haul them to a processing facility. There, you empty your bounty down a "cull" chute where individual carrots are placed a conveyor belt. As the carrots move along, good-looking, elegantly shaped plants are separated from twisted, malformed ones.
Now the moment of truth arrives, the time when you learn how much of your crop is fit for market--and how much is agricultural waste. So how did you do?
If the question were posed to you in the 1980s, the answer would likely be "dismal," no matter how skilled a farmer you happened to be. Then, as much as 70 percent of a carrot harvest wound up being discarded. Today, however, things are much different, thanks in no small measure, to one man: Mike Yurosek. A California native, he is widely considered to be the "father" of the baby carrot, which literally transformed the U.S. carrot industry.
Neither a botanist nor a genetic horticulture expert, the late Yurosek (he died in 2005) deplored waste. But waste was a huge part of his business for decades. Some days, he'd discard as much as 250 tons worth of twisted carrot culls that could not fit into the clear plastic bags sold to grocers. Most farmers didn't mind because their massive yields represented excellent farming.
But Yurosek thought the traditional way of farming carrots was wrong. What good is producing so many carrots if the majority aren't relevant to the grocers who sell them or the consumers who buy them?, he wondered. Frustrated, Yurosek--who prided himself on a tendency to "think outside the carrot patch"--decided one day in 1986 to try something new.
Rather than the discard the misshapen carrots that came from his fields, Yurosek and his small team hand-cut them into shorter, "baby-sized" lengths with the help of an industrial potato peeler. Yurosek hoped that improving their appearance would make the knobby-looking carrots more appealing to local grocers. So he sent a bag to the supermarket chain Vons. To his surprise, Vons got back to him quickly with crystal-clear instructions: "We only want those."
From that moment, the "baby carrot" industry was off and running. But like any nascent market, it needed some refinements. So Yurosek worked to improve baby carrot processing at every turn. To simplify the cutting and packaging process, he bought a green-bean cutter, which made perfect, 2-inch cuts every time. Then he invested in additional peeling technology.
After perfecting the shaping of baby carrots, Yurosek and other growers turned to improving the taste and hardiness of the crop. They bred new varieties and developed new planting techniques that transformed carrot misfits into carrot must-haves.
Once they realized how much more convenient baby carrots were than traditional, uncut carrots, consumers gobbled them up by the bagfuls--literally. Consider: before the advent of baby carrots, the average American ate roughly 6 pounds of carrots a year. Today, carrot consumption has climbed to more than 10 pounds annually.
As for growers and processors, the introduction of baby carrots transformed their lives. Before baby carrots, for example, Yurosek and other growers sold their full-length products for 10 cents a bag. Supermarkets, in turn, would sell the bags to consumers for less than a quarter dollar. After baby carrots became popular, however, growers could command 50 cents for a 1-lb bag, while grocers could resell them for more than $1.
By simply cutting carrots into 2-inch sections, Yurosek won a well-earned place in agricultural history. Equally deserved is his legacy in business lore. Yurosek transformed an industry by addressing a common problem. Whereas most growers focused their energies on production excellence, Yurosek addressed another ingredient required for success: customer relevance.
By making his product more convenient to consumers, Yurosek increased the relevance of the 2,000 year-old plant. Then he worked to redefine excellence by making his products better through innovative growing and harvesting techniques..
Striving for both excellence and relevance both proved transformative. The proof, of course, is in the pudding--and the cakes and the casseroles and soups and other carrot dishes .
Next time your doctor compliments you for getting the required vitamin A in your diet, remember the father of the baby carrot, and his simultaneous pursuit of both excellence and relevance. Doing both not only made it easier for you to get your nutrients, it also changed agriculture forever.
For more information, view the WebEx recording at Together@WebEx.
Inder Sidhu is the Senior Vice President of Strategy & Planning for Worldwide Operations at Cisco, and the author of Doing Both: How Cisco Captures Today's Profits and Drives Tomorrow's Growth. Follow Inder on Twitter at @indersidhu.