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January 17, 2018

It’s All About the Carrots

Member Profile

Jeff Huckaby

CEO/President Grimmway Farms

Bakersfield, California

Member Since 1986

Grimmway Farms began as a sweet corn growing operation in Orange County in the 1960s, morphed into the largest carrot grower in the world in the 1990s in Kern County, and is now also the largest organic grower of vegetables in the United States.

All of this points to a diversified company with a wide portfolio of crops and services. That is true but longtime employee and Chief Executive Officer Jeff Huckaby said “it is still all about the carrots.”

He added: “Carrots are massive for us. They are still a big presence. We do not mind being known as a carrot company.”

And he explained that it’s not just a hard-to-shake reputation, it’s a fact. The success of the two founders, brothers Rod and Bob Grimm—both of whom died at a relatively young age—is well known and well chronicled. They started in Orange County in the 1960s with sweet corn acreage, added a farm stand early on and then fortuitously added carrots as a rotation crop for their sweet corn. By the 1980s, they had moved to Bakersfield and were well on their way to being carrot entrepreneurs. They perfected the production of baby carrots and helped launch a revolution in that category. Throughout the ‘90s, the company grew into the carrot powerhouse that it is today.

Of the 70,000 acres of carrots under cultivation in the United States, Huckaby says production from about 40,000 of them are marketed by Grimmway Farms.

It was in the 1990s that the company started to grow organic carrots, which the current CEO Huckaby admits was not wildly successful. “We did okay,” he says.

The shifting from corn to carrots was obviously a pivotal moment in the firm’s evolution. Another such moment occurred in 2001 when Grimmway Farms purchased Cal-Organic Vegetable in nearby Lamont. “That was a big shift for us,” Huckaby said.

He explained that ground used to grow organic carrots one year, must be planted with rotational crops in years two and three, before returning to carrots in year four. With the purchase of Cal-Organics, Huckaby said Bob Grimm made the commitment to devote the company’s best land to the organic sector. They couldn’t use leased land as the crop rotation made it impossible to preserve the integrity of the organic certification without controlling every crop on that ground, every year. Huckaby, who was in charge of Grimmway’s organic carrot production, became general manager of Cal-Organic and the leader of the firm’s march into the organic world.

Initially, the Cal-Organic’s purchase gave Grimmway 30 vegetable crops to rotate with its organic carrot acreage. Huckaby said after a couple of years and crop rotations it became clear that the soil was being improved and so was the output. He said the organic carrots being produced were of higher quality than before and yields were much better. Today the company has a stable of 65 organic vegetables that are utilized in the crop rotation with its carrot production.

But Huckaby said it is carrots that continue to be the focal point. Growth is determined by how much carrots are needed. “We have the ability to go out and increase our mixed vegetable production without increasing carrot production, but we don’t do that.”

As goes carrots, so goes Grimmway. That path has produced quite a winner over the years.  Huckaby said the firm has 42,000 of company-owned acres under organic production. It has come close to perfecting its crop rotation which includes onions, potatoes, broccoli and a host of other items, including cover crops that are tilled back into the field on a regular basis. This rotation, he said, improves the soil and results in the production of top notch organic crops on a continual basis.

Huckaby believes that the decision made by Bob Grimm in 2001 to use only the best land has been the key to their success. He notes that other growers often find a piece of land that has been out of production for three years or more to launch their organic involvement as that reduces the time needed for certification. “But there’s a reason that land wasn’t being used,” he said. “And it’s usually because of bad soil.”

Grimmway took its best land and produced its best crops.

While 20 years of organic farming experience has helped Grimmway achieve close to yield parity between its conventional and organic crops, Huckaby said it is still significantly more expensive to grow organic products, and the premium price they command is justified and needed. He said weeding costs are 10 times more in organic carrot production because there are no approved herbicides that can do the job chemicals can do on conventional land. And from a fertility standpoint, he said the work done with conventional carrots is cheaper and more effective. “Those two inputs alone are enough to justify the premium price.”

Huckaby said that currently organic demand is outpacing supply so the premium is still in play. He indicated that without that premium it would be difficult to continue growing organic crops.

For his part, Huckaby grew up on a farm, joined Bolthouse Farms after college as a farm manager and then several years later came to Grimmway to head up their organic farming division. He then took over Cal-Organic and became executive vice president of the firm after Bob Grimm passed in 2006. In 2016, Huckaby was elevated to the role of president/CEO.

Grimmway Farms is still a family-owned operation with three children of the original founders currently working within the organization and being groomed for future leadership roles. Brandon Grimm has been active in Western Growers and went through the organization’s Future Volunteer Leaders Program