Bolthouse Farms juices are arranged for a photograph in Washington, D.C.

Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

As grocers try to keep shelves stocked, Bolthouse Farms has seen demand for its carrots double, putting pressure on the company to fulfill orders without risking the safety of its workers. 

The Bakersfield, California-based company is just one example of how panic buying by consumers across the country has strained the food supply system. Food giants like Kraft Heinz and Campbell Soup, Bolthouse’s former parent, are boosting their production to meet demand from consumers who are eating at home. There are no nationwide shortages of food, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom has mandated the shutdown of nonessential businesses to slow the spread of the coronavirus. As an agriculture and food company, Bolthouse is considered essential.

“We’ve been doing as much as we can to stay in production. I think that’s critical with everyone right now, keep their plants up and running,” CEO Jeff Dunn said in an interview.

Bolthouse and its rival Grimmway Farms have a virtual duopoly on U.S. carrot production, harvesting at least 80% of the country’s fresh carrot crop. Private equity firm Butterfly Equity bought Bolthouse, which is also known for its refrigerated juices and smoothies, from Campbell in 2019.

Zak Karlen, general manager of the company’s farms business, said Bolthouse typically tries to keep a few weeks of extra supply in its pipeline in case of demand spikes or because of quality or yield issues. Bolthouse also has more carrots in the ground this time of year because of the coming Easter holiday, which usually means heightened demand for the root vegetable. 

But a carrot takes roughly 150 days to grow. 

“Once we get to that stasis point, we’re not sure exactly how we’ll all sell out and how long this will go, like anyone, but we’re taking every action we can to put extra acres in the ground,” Dunn said.

At Bolthouse Farms, teams of four people use tractors and harvesters to dig up carrots. The machinery saves the farm from handpicking the crop. Farms that hand-harvest crops like strawberries or oranges have been struggling to find labor in recent years, and fear of the coronavirus will likely exacerbate the shortage.

“We have 13 crews, so if one does have a situation or an illness, we’re able to shut that crew down and continue going with the other 12,” Karlen said.

The processing facility for the carrots is “highly automated” and no humans touch the products moving along conveyor belts, according to Dunn. Foodborne exposure to the virus is not known to transmit COVID-19.

The plant has been broken up into zones and subzones to keep workers apart from each other, and a 30-minute gap has been instituted between shifts to keep employees from mingling. 

“It’s a minor disruption of productivity, but holistically it’s working for us right now,” Karlen said.

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