Mike Yurosek, who died Sunday at 82, was generally agreed to be the man responsible for the "baby carrot," buffed carrot stubs that became ubiquitous in lunch boxes and on hors d'oeuvres trays.
Starting with their wide-scale introduction in the early 1990s, baby carrots sparked a high-tech revolution in the carrot industry and vastly increased demand for the root vegetable.
Yurosek started out as a large-scale truck farmer on his family's farm in Santa Clarita, Calif., growing cabbages, tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, lima beans, and carrots. Later, the family moved to nearby Lamont, in Kern County, the carrot center of California. He launched his Bunny Luv brand in the mid-1960s. His wife, Sue, drew the sexy lady bunny on the package.
Yurosek developed the baby carrot almost by accident. Among the largest carrot farmers in California - and probably the world - his packing operation produced 400 tons of daily cull, damaged and misshapen carrots that wouldn't fit into bags.
Some of the cull was used for carrot juice concentrate and some for animal feed, but demand was limited. You can feed cows and pigs just so many carrots, Yurosek told USA Today last year. "After that, their fat turns orange."
Experimenting with an industrial potato peeler and green bean slicer, Yurosek produced the first versions of today's baby carrot in 1986. The first ones were a bit ragged, but he bagged them and sent them to Vons, a large West Coast supermarket chain. "I said, 'I'm sending you some carrots to see what you think,'" Yurosek told USA Today. "Next day they called and said, 'We only want those.'"
Small carrots were not, strictly speaking, a new thing. Boutique farmers had grown tiny carrots for use in TV dinners since the 1950s, but schemes to market them fresh to consumers had failed. Maybe it was because lifestyles had changed or maybe it was dumb luck, but Yurosek's miniatures were the biggest thing to happen to carrots in the industry's memory, according to Jerry Munson of the California Fresh Carrot Advisory Board. Within just a few years, California carrot production - essentially flat for years - grew by 50%. It has since leveled off at about a million tons a year, approximately half of which is baby carrots.
While Yurosek never tried to patent the process or register a special trademark, he prospered. When he sold out to rival Grimmway Farms in the early 1990s, it became the largest carrot producer in the world, a company representative said.
Today, the process is far more automated than Yurosek's early experiments. Carrots are harvested by mechanical behemoths that move down the rows faster than a man can walk and pull up 75 tons of carrots an hour. Then they are chilled, sorted, cut, peeled, polished, weighed, and bagged, all by machine.
Because of the large capital investments for machinery, the industry has in recent decades become more concentrated; at the time Yurosek invented the baby carrot, or "mini" in industrial parlance, three producers accounted for 80% of California's production. Today, just two producers account for more than 90% of production, according to Mr. Munson.
In a 1993 Los Angeles Times article, Bill Bolthouse, proprietor of neighboring Bolthouse Farms - now no. 2 in carrots - alleged that Yurosek stole designs from his unpatented carrot harvester, hiring an engineer to make diagrams and investigate the machine at night and on foggy winter weekends.
Yurosek retorted, "We had a lot of ideas and went out and confirmed it on his machine." So, in the oligopolistic world of California carrots, it seemed like rough justice that Mr. Bolthouse became a beneficiary of Yurosek's great invention.
After selling out to Grimmway, Yurosek lived the life of a successful retired carrot man, sportfishing with his grandchildren. He occasionally asked his wife to bake a favored dessert, her Bunny Luv carrot cake.