The beginnings of Peter Rabbit Farms can be traced back to the 1930's in San Francisco, when Palmer Powell was a partner in Sunrise Produce Company. Sunrise supplied the wholesale terminal market in San Francisco with fresh produce grown throughout the southwest. In 1939, Sunrise opened a packing plant in Coachella to pack tomatoes, cantaloupes and other items. It was run by Palmer’s partner at Sunrise, Bill Kelly. The operation was moved to a new facility in Indio a few years later.
In the mid-1940’s, Palmer Powell would fly his single-engine Bellanca airplane from the San Francisco bay area to growing regions such as Fresno, Hermosillo Mexico, and the Coachella Valley to meet with growers who supplied Sunrise. He would also fly down to the Coachella Valley to help Bill Kelly with the packing plant during harvest time. On many of these trips he was accompanied by his young son, John.
After World War II, the first large grocery chain stores, such as Safeway and Purity Markets, began to appear. Palmer realized that with the chain stores’ inevitable growth, produce would be supplied directly from the producer to the chain store, cutting out the wholesale terminal markets. Palmer knew the timing was right to leave Sunrise and open his own packing plant to sell directly to the chains. But where should he locate the plant?
The Coachella Valley became a land of opportunity in the late 1940’s, when the distribution system for Colorado River water was newly operational. No longer dependent on well water, farmers in the Coachella Valley received gravity-fed water delivery to every 40 acres of land. With farming much more economically feasible, and a climate conducive to winter vegetable production, many new acres went into production.
At the time, most fresh produce was shipped by rail to nearby places such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, and also to faraway destinations to the east. In 1950 Palmer opened Cardinal Distributing Company right next to the railroad tracks in the city of Coachella. There he packed and cooled a variety of fruits and vegetables including tomatoes, cantaloupes, grapes, and of course, carrots. He built refrigerated cold storage on site, something that was not common at the time. Most importantly, he was set up to sell directly from the farms to the chain stores that were rapidly expanding throughout the country.
Palmer’s son John, still in school, would travel down to the Coachella Valley during summer months to work with his father. Their hard work and determination caused the business to flourish. In 1952, when John graduated from high school, Palmer moved his family from San Mateo to Bliss Avenue in Indio. The next year John began his university education at University of Southern California, and then spent two years proudly serving the United States Army. John joined the business full time in late 1958.
Following the innovation of a competing company called Sunny Sally, Palmer started packing carrots in cellophane bags, only the second packer to do so. This is where the term “cello carrots” comes from. The cellophane was soon replaced by low density poly bags, which was better for the carrots. Palmer decided to place Bugs Bunny, the popular cartoon character, on the new carrot bags, for which he was required to pay a 5% royalty on gross sales to Warner Brothers. Tired of writing checks to Warner Bros., Palmer’s wife Faye thought up a new label, “Peter Rabbit”, and the rest is history.
As Cardinal grew, reliance on its suppliers for fresh produce became critical. In order to shore up the reliability of this supply, Palmer and John began leasing acreage to start their own farm. Small profits were turned back into the business, eventually allowing them to purchase small plots of land, sometimes for as little as $400 per acre. Peter Rabbit Farms was born!
As John’s children graduated from college, Suzanne from USC, John Jr from Stanford, and Steve from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, they each joined the family business full-time. Suzanne and John Jr. joined the company, and worked alongside their father and grandfather until Palmer’s death in the spring of 1988. Within a year, Steve also entered the business.
In the early 1990s, the Powells began cutting and peeling the carrots that they grew. Initially, baby carrots were formed from larger carrots that were misshaped and otherwise were discarded. As the baby carrot category exploded in popularity, varieties were developed and carrots were grown specifically as “baby carrots” that were younger, more tender, sweeter, and cylindrical in shape. Peter Rabbit Farms grew into a year-round producer with growing regions in Coachella Valley, Imperial Valley, San Jacinto, Bakersfield and Lancaster. By 2006, Peter Rabbit Farms was the third largest grower, packer, shipper of baby carrots in North America.
In August 2006, Peter Rabbit Farms sold its carrot business to Bolthouse Farms, and once again became a seasonal producer in the Coachella Valley. Peter Rabbit Farms now grows carrots for Bolthouse Farms, and a wide variety of other vegetables for other top year-round producer/marketers in California.
Peter Rabbit Farms also maintains a national marketing presence with a number of the crops that it grows including lettuce, peppers and table grapes.
Suzanne served as the director of marketing and business development until her retirement in 2006. She was especially devoted to developing the Wal-Mart carrot business, which grew rapidly over the years. Following John Powell, Sr.’s retirement in November 2003, his sons John Jr. and Steve are responsible for daily management of the company. John Jr., as President/CEO, oversees the daily business matters of the company, and Steve, as Vice President/COO is directly responsible for the important task of farming all of the wonderful fruits and vegetables produced by Peter Rabbit Farms.
Today Peter Rabbit Farms is one of the premier produce grower/shippers in the Coachella Valley, growing the finest seasonal fresh fruits and vegetables on the market, and marketing them throughout the US and Canada. With the fourth generation of Powells now in high school and college, the family farm has bright future.