SAN FRANCISCO — Earl Herrick, founder and owner of Earl’s Organic Produce, is at a time in life when he could walk away happy from the long days, the growing competition.

His age qualifies for retirement. Passion is the roadblock.

“A job is the opportunity to express one’s passion,” Herrick said. “It’s all about having fun.”

The number of consumers demanding fresh organic produce continues to grow even in the midst of the recession, he said. Herrick has had a front row seat for more than 30 years as the industry has evolved. The reasons for the many changes have ranged from foresight to force.

“The key is to anticipate what customers want,” Herrick said.

A signal that he and other fellow tenants at the San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market may not have foreseen was the dwindling number of Northern California retail chains that would elect to purchase their fresh produce — organic and conventionally grown — direct from growers rather than from the distributors at the wholesale produce market.

Herrick was forced to counter with a modern fleet of delivery trucks.

“We had to do it,” he said. “Fewer and fewer stores were sending buyers to the market.”

The trucks deliver to more than 200 Earl’s Organic Produce customers — retailers, restaurants, other distributors and even neighborhood co-ops. The company also sells to other tenants at the wholesale produce market, Herrick said.

One gets the feeling Herrick has enjoyed every inch of the journey from the 1980s when he was selling organic apples from the back of a converted utility truck to the modern facility he now oversees.

“The subculture of organics has broadened a bit since those apple days,” he said. “Now green is in.”

There was one employee when Earl’s Organic Produce moved into the wholesale produce market in 1989: Earl. Today, the staff numbers more than 50 at the only 100% organic house in the San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market.

Earl’s Organic Produce also is a certified organic handler by California Certified Organic Farmers, Santa Cruz, and is a registered organic handler with the Food and Drug Administration.

The company has many long term grower-suppliers, but Herrick readily welcomes new growers.

“I make lots of farm tours, and I walk new growers through posts-harvest handling and the other realities of marketing their produce to retail and foodservice,” he said.

The majority of the growers who supply Earl’s Organic Produce are within a 200 mile radius of the company’s headquarters. In the winter months when California fields are dormant, however, the company sources its organic produce from Mexico, Herrick said.

Herrick said he may lessen his work load in the future, but he’s nurturing a couple of new generations to guide the company into the future, he said. And he is still anticipating what customers want and governmental agencies may demand.

Food safety initiative

Earl’s Organic Produce recently unveiled a comprehensive new food safety program. The task of developing the program was given to a couple of the company’s younger generation staffers, salesman David Drabkin and warehouse operations manager Pablo Ruiz.

The project was expensive and took nearly a year to complete, Drabkin said. The company retained consultants who worked with Drabkin and Ruiz and with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the California Department of Food and Agriculture to develop the program.

“The finished program covers every aspect of the company’s operation from receiving to storing to delivery,” Ruiz said.

The project revealed that Earl’s Organic Produce had already adopted most of the most stringent sanitation and good handling practices, Drabkin said. 

The most obvious result of the new food safety program is detailed documentation. Even water and ice are laboratory tested on a frequent and regular basis to prevent bacterial contamination of the produce.

“We’ve definitely raised the bar on food safety,” Ruiz said. “Many of the steps were already being done, but now we’ve formalized those steps.”

It is on his shoulders and those of his staff of more than 30 warehouse workers and truck drivers that the bulk of the program's requirements fall. For Ruiz, the program translates to increased hours of training and re-training, he said. 

For Herrick, the food safety program is yet another chapter in an industry for which he still has great passion.