Organic Produce Perspectives: Talking with Jeff Huckaby of Cal Organic/Grimmway Farms

Brothers Rod and Bob Grimm founded iconic carrot brand Grimmway Farms in 1969. The company acquired Cal-Organic, a pioneering organic grower, from founder Danny Duncan in 2001. Organic Trade Association Board Member and Pioneer Emeritus of Organically Grown Company David Lively first visited Cal-Organic in 1985 when it was only a few acres, and Danny was preparing to certify 300 acres the next year. Lively recently talked organic, carrots and pride with Grimmway’s President Jeff Huckaby on the occasion of Grimmway’s 50th anniversary.

Jeff: One of my buyers tells a story. We were on a farm tour when I walked out in the field to pull a weed. I didn’t say anything about it at the time, but these weeds drive me crazy. Danny Duncan taught me if he didn’t pull the weeds, the guys around him wouldn’t pull the weeds. But if Danny would pull them – no one would walk by a weed without pulling it.

David: Great story. So, what led Grimmway Farms to acquire Cal-Organic?

Jeff: We started growing organically in the mid-90s with a different approach than most organic guys. Others felt like organic was the only way to go, benefiting society and the environment. The Grimms ran a carrot company, and wanted to get into it because they were afraid they were going to lose all the chemicals that were necessary to grow conventional carrots.

Once I started to grow organically, I found out – wow, we don’t have the chemicals – we don’t have everything we need. Our carrots were the big driver and we just didn’t have very many rotation crops to grow. We’d make a little money on the carrots every third year in the same field. In years two and three, we spent all the money we made on the carrots building the soil. At the end of the day it wasn’t profitable. We had to have a full rotation to make it work. Danny was growing in our area – a few carrots, but also 35+ other items. He wanted to control everything himself. We did the same thing on the carrot side, but at a larger scale, with multiple farm managers managing multiple crops. We needed rotational crops and it wouldn’t be easy to start growing vegetable crops. It would cost a lot of money to do it right, and we didn’t have the sales for broccoli, cauliflower and lettuce.

We worked a deal out with Danny, folded his crops into ours and we had a magical rotation. Instantly we started seeing better yields on every one of the crops, especially the carrots. It was huge for us, and it worked out well for Danny.

David: When you took over Cal-O, were you profitable every year? Or were there still parts of the program that were supportive but not leading to success?

Jeff: Still today we have loss leaders that benefit the carrots, and we have several crops that we don’t do well on but we have to have them in the program to make the whole thing work. So when I go out to visit a customer, I sell the entire program. It’s not, “Hey, I want to sell you carrots, or I want to sell you broccoli.” It’s “I can’t sell you one without the other because they don’t work well without the other.” And it works well for retailers because they can pick up 65 different items in one location. I need them all – one benefits the next. When we try to pull one out and not utilize the other pieces, it’s a disaster.

David: It’s interesting, because of what we’re dealing with currently in the grain sector. Growers may make money on a primary crop, but unless they can market the harvests of a full rotation, they can’t maintain profitability every year and they can’t optimize their soil programs.

Being in the organic trade, we didn’t know a lot about Grimmway, other than you produce, like, a quarter of the carrots in the world. We didn’t know what was going to happen with quality when you took over. Cal-Organic was using practices in the field and on the packing line that no one in the U.S. organic had used before, and it rapidly established the Cal-O brand as superior to any other broad line of row crops.

Jeff: What Cal-O was doing fit like a glove because that’s what we were doing on the Grimmway side. The Grimms had started as a small carrot company with a lot of big competitors out there – Bunny Luv, Bolthouse and several other mid-size carrot companies. For them to get their name out in the market, they had to have exceptional quality. We wanted to control everything so that if there were anyone to blame, they could point the finger at us. What we learned with our carrots was that you’ve got to cool them, cut them, and do everything in a specific way for carrots--- not for vegetables – for carrots. So many people have a one-size-fits-all mentality. They treat lettuce and broccoli and dandelion greens very similarly. We treat each crop the best way for that product--not necessarily the quickest way or the most efficient way, but whatever is going to preserve the integrity of that product so that it looks as good five days later on the East Coast as it did in our packing room.

We still do that today. We see rising costs. Should we be automating? Everything we’ve seen hurts the quality of the product. We’ve got to outshine everybody – and we get a premium for it because we’re putting that extra time and effort in it. And, we need the premium, because it is more expensive the way we are doing it.

I take a lot of pride in what we’re doing in our fields because the raw product is everything. If you’ve got premium quality in the field, the harvesting, packing and cooling are much easier. When you have rough product in the field, you’re in there trying to repack stuff to make it look good. So we start in the field. We’re farming 48,000 acres, but we still farm it all ourselves. When I take people on tours, I want them to look around and notice, “Oh, wow. There’s something different about this farm.” It’s a sense of pride. I’ll take anyone to our fields and they say – this can’t be organic, there are no weeds; you’re cheating or doing something wrong. But no, we put a lot of effort to make it look this way.

David: In trying to describe working with a just-in-time inventory of highly perishable product to a business class, I once explained the produce trade this way. Imagine that you are a building contractor. You ordered 2x4s, but they ship 4x4s, and instead of oak, half the shipment is fir. You open the boxes of nails, they are half rusted. Half the window glass is broken. That’s produce.

With you guys, it was like, “We are not going to overproduce. We are going to be here for you, but we are going to continue to get a premium price.” It set the market. Now buyers ask, “What’s Cal-O have, what’s the quality, and what’s the price?” and they set the market off of that.

I was talking to long-time organic ag consultant Amigo Bob Cantisano recently about your program. He has a lot of respect for it. I expected him to speak to the field end, but he carried that through to the quality of what’s coming off the packing line and what’s happening with the price, because he’s dealt with enough farms that he’s aware of the impacts of price crashing, and considers this idea that we’re going to produce organic for the price of conventional is a serious problem.

Jeff: About once a week a retailer comes to visit. I tell them every time – you’re not going to get organic for the same price as conventional, and I’d be suspect if you do. When you look at the weeding we have to do, investing in cover crops every year, to achieve proper fertility, it’s all significantly more expensive. I will tell you that our yields on organic are better than our conventional yields because we have better rotations, better control. But it doesn’t mean we’re growing it cheaper.

David: That’s the ultimate discipline – being able to walk away from what others are afraid to pass up on, or get bullied into. It’s going to be really interesting as that dynamic gets stronger with you holding the line. There will be other growers willing to do it. But, if they don’t have the quality, they’ll be in trouble.

Jeff: Organic is now over half of our business. I’m shocked at what we’ve done in 20 years. For me, when I meet with retailers and they say, “You have the best program,” that sounds good. But when guys like you and Amigo Bob – guys who have been in it for a long time – recognize what we’re doing, that means so much. You understand what we’ve gone through to get where we are.

Dave: I’ve worked with a number of conventional growers who were part of mid-scale conventional family farms about to be crushed in the ‘get big or get out’ game. These guys came into organic not because they believed in it, but because finances or farm degradation, or both, forced them to recalibrate. Within two or three years, they were organic champions because they saw the results in the field.

Jeff: We didn’t get into it because we believed in organic. But once you’re in it, if you’re not in it for the right reasons, you won’t make it. I’ll tell you one thing about being organic: we’ve changed our conventional ways of growing by learning from organic. As a conventional grower, there are so many quick fixes, whether it’s the chemicals you can use or some of the different fertilizers, and you don’t really study your soil that much. In organic, if you don’t have that rotation, you’re not building your soil, you’re not using cover crops, you’re dead. So now your whole focus is on soil. We’ve started learning that if we focus on soil on the conventional side, we can use less pesticide, we can use less fertilizer. It’s made us better farmers.

David: You’ve scaled up more than anyone I can think of, and you’ve done it the right way.

Jeff: We’re huge, but we still think of ourselves as a Mom and Pop operation. But the organic has to be handled with so much integrity that you don’t cut corners. That’s why we have a compost business of our own. If you get compost in that didn’t get properly heated, you’ll have weed seed problems. You take a field that you’ve almost cleaned, where maybe it’s $100 or $200 an acre to weed every season, and it could go to three or four thousand dollars that next season. You can’t cut corners.

David: Did you have any idea you’d get to this scale?

Jeff: Never. Unfortunately Rod passed away in 1998 before we did many organic products. Bob passed away in 2006. I can tell you we never thought it would be anywhere near this. We thought when we produce high-quality produce, we’ll never have a problem selling high-quality produce, and we’ll work as partners with our retailers.

When we started we had gaps. There would be a two- or three-week season where we didn’t have product. I started adding it up and – Holy Cow – if we’d had product every single day, our growth would have been huge. So our first steps were to fill the gaps so we could have supply year around.

It was big for us to go find the growing regions that would produce during the gaps. When we did that, our growth went through the roof because we were in that product almost every single day. Then, retailers saw they could build a program around the brand. The combination of those two took us to the next level.

David: Do you have advice for young growers?

Jeff: I do. I grew up working on a farm. I have a passion for it. If you have that passion and the desire, stick with it. It’s very rewarding to be able to take an open piece of dirt, cultivate it, put that seed in and quickly have a reward. I know a lot of people who quit early. They’re out doing the grunt work and can’t see beyond tomorrow. Organic has taught me you have to have long-term vision, and when you do the rewards are unbelievable. And I don’t just mean financially, but the whole aspect of growing this crop and feeding so many people highly nutritious stuff. It’s a great career. //

Produced by Angela Jagiello, Director of Education and Insights for the Organic Trade Association (