Grimmway Farms celebrates a half-century of feeding the nation
Once upon a time, there were two brothers Grimm. The stories they told weren’t made with words, but with seed and soil, beneath the sun and bathed in rain, released from the ground by those with strong backs, weathered hands, and a love of the land. For Rod and Bob Grimm there were no trolls beneath bridges, just Southern California summers and their roadside stand full of homegrown sweet corn and fresh produce.
The brothers passed away several years ago, but their legacy can be found in virtually every grocery store in America, and on plates atop global dining tables. “In 1969, after running their roadside stands for many years, Rod and Bob made Grimmway Farms the official start of the company. Fifty years later we're growing on over 40,000 organic acres, and we're the largest supplier of organic vegetables to Whole Foods, Albertsons, and a number of other retailers,” said company president Jeff Huckaby.
Celebrating their golden anniversary this spring, Grimmway is the largest carrot producer in the world and the longest-running single grower of organic vegetables in the nation, farming their produce in seven states. The company produces over 135 seasonal and year-round products distributed worldwide, all of which are grown in the USA. They supply conventional and organic produce to some of the nation’s largest retailers, including Costco, Kroger, and dozens of others. They also provide premium conventional and organic vegetable ingredients to global manufacturers for use in juices, baby foods, and a host of other consumer goods.
Fifty years after moving from the roadside to the produce aisle, the next generation of Grimm family members is helping to chart the future of the business and continuing to support the communities in which they operate.
A fresh bite of history
Huckaby, a fourth-generation farmer, has been part of the Grimmway organization for over 20 years. He grew up in California’s Central Valley, working on his grandfather’s carrot and potato farm in Bakersfield. Upon graduating from college he worked for a local carrot company, becoming a farm manager. In 1998, Grimmway scooped Huckaby from the firm that would become its largest competitor in the carrot market.
To hear Huckaby summarize 50 years of success, strategy, and community support is a treat. It’s a quintessential story of business acumen, bold choices, honoring the hard work of farming, and of course, California.
In the 1960s, he began, “carrots were the whole cello style carrot that isn't cut, peeled, or processed in any way, and that was the carrot market. The Grimms enjoyed growing carrots. It became their No. 1 crop, and they started going to areas that grew them, and one of those areas happened to be Kern County. Kern County and the growing regions around Bakersfield, Calif., have some of the most ideal land for growing carrots.”
On average, Kern County gets 6.45 inches of rain annually, and the average temperature hovers around 65 degrees with summer highs in the 100s.
“For some reason — the combination of the lack of rain, no humidity, good soils, and good water availability from wells and surface water, and where it is geographically located — they were able to get two carrot crops a year out of this area. You would get a spring crop and a fall crop, and there are very few places in the United States where that happens,” he said.
In the 1970s, growers flocked to the area. By the time the Grimms set up shop in Bakersfield in 1981 there were multiple carrot operations in existence in the Bakersfield area. Eventually, they executed a careful acquisition program of companies that had established themselves in the region.
“In 1991, they bought a company called Belridge Farms that had a carrot packing company and gained a little momentum. Shortly after that they bought another company called Mike Yurosek and Sons. Mike Yurosek was the original developer of the baby carrot as we know it today.” The birth of the baby carrot — which isn’t a species of carrot, but a carrot peeled and cut to snack size — changed the carrot industry and the family’s future.
The Grimms, being good businessmen, hard workers, and seasoned farmers, very quickly became a large player in the carrot sphere. “In the 1990s, the consumption of carrots more than doubled when baby carrots became available. As the consumption went up, the number of acres that needed to be grown skyrocketed,” Huckaby recalled.
“Becoming one of the first players to be able to offer carrots to a retailer year-round that they could pick up at the same place year-in and year-out and not have to worry about switching from one shed or one area to another, was very appealing to the retailer. They started getting traction, and one of Rod and Bob's central goals was to take care of the customer. Whatever the customer needed, they would do. If a customer wanted special packaging, they would jump through hoops to get them the type of packaging they wanted. It was about taking care of a customer. That's how they built their business.”
Organic Farming Comes to the Fore
Throughout the 1990s, one of the biggest issues for companies doing business in California was the state’s drive to reduce the number of synthetic materials present in goods made in the state. Ever proactive, the Grimms stepped up to the looming challenges by making a serious commitment to organic farming.
“They developed an organic plan in the late ’90s and started growing carrots organically, and one of the things they learned about growing organic was that you need a lot of crops to rotate to prevent disease and to break up certain cycles that are happening in the crops. The organic plan also coincided with Huckaby’s arrival at the firm.
“In 1999 they asked if I would try to grow the organic carrot and I told them I would, which I didn't think would be very easy, if possible at all, but they insisted and continued to trial. We had a lot of failures and a lot of successes, but we figured out a way to grow carrots organically.”
Because of growing issues specific to carrots, they can only be planted in the same land every three years. To become a certified organic carrot grower, farmers must only cultivate the land using certified organic processes for three years and build up the soil to meet organic farming standards for the crop. Without synthetic chemicals to control disease, crop rotation is essential.
“We found that by using a broad rotation program of different vegetables like broccoli, lettuce, onions, and potatoes, we would break the disease cycles, so we needed to add more and more crops for rotation between growing carrots once every three years.” In 2001, Grimmway’s purchase of Cal-Organic, a pioneering organic produce company established in 1984, came with 65 different vegetables that could be successfully put in rotation with the carrot crops.
Supplying Grimmway’s domestic and international customers poses unique challenges from a logistical and supply chain perspective. “The one thing that we try to focus on is that we as farmers need to grow produce in the very best areas that give us the best chance of growing the highest quality at the highest yield at the lowest cost, and that's not always right next door to the large cities.
“Logistics is a big part of having a good supply chain, along with good communication, good dependable trucking and rail service to be able to take the very best produce from optimal growing regions and transport it quickly. We have found that when you try to grow in an area that's not ideal but maybe close by, it usually doesn't work. You don't have the consistency, the quality, or the tonnage that you need. It's very important that farming is done where it's best to get the best finished product. And you've got to have multiple areas to do that — and a very consistent supply chain.”
Retailers in this day and age are relentlessly unforgiving when it comes to having fully stocked shelves, and depend on reliable suppliers to deliver near-perfect products on a daily basis. Grimmway, voted supplier of the year by some of the nation’s biggest grocery chains, sets itself apart from other growers and packers by consistently meeting incredibly high expectations. And, as Huckaby stresses, there’s one overriding differentiator that puts them ahead of the pack.
“Grimmway still focuses on the farm. Although there are a lot of processes that go after the farm, there’s cutting and peeling and packaging carrots and there's transportation, but if you do not start with the highest quality on the farm then no matter how good your facilities are, you will never be efficient and you'll never have the highest quality. Raw materials drive everything.”
Retailers appreciate the convenience, too. “When they can make one phone call to Grimmway and one call to Cal-Organic and take care of 65 different items 52 weeks of the year and that consistent supply is a consistent quality, that's how we receive those awards. That comes from starting at the farm level and owning our land and our resources and putting back into the soil everything that we need to be sustainable, and it's paying off.”
Giving voice, and giving back
Connecting the needs of growers to the government and the industry at large is something that Grimmway takes seriously. “We work with groups like the United Fresh Produce Association, Western Growers, and the USDA to make sure that all of the agriculture industry is heard,” Huckaby reported. Because most farming operations are small, they rely on growers groups and industry leaders to express their concerns, and that’s something Huckaby and Grimmway are happy to facilitate.
The Grimm family’s dedication to the health, welfare, and happiness of their employees and their children, as well as to the communities in which they operate is demonstrated daily. “Our company is founded on a unique blend of family values,” Huckaby said. “At the same time, we are always focused and committed to employing best practices and new technologies necessary for a business of our size and scale. Rod and Bob believed in investing in the people who work with us and for us, and this philosophy remains at the core of our success.”
From community cleanups to establishing edible gardens in school districts and dozens of other annual charitable efforts, Grimmway endeavors to make the world a better place. Every April, the company’s workforce gathers for the annual Grimmway Farms company picnic. This year, the company hosted more than 10,000 employees and their families at the event, which included an awards ceremony for the company’s college scholarship program. Education is a key focus for the Grimm family. Given that many farm workers often move from season to season, giving their kids stable places to learn and thrive is a priority.
The Grimm Family Education Foundation established Grimmway Schools, a network of public charter schools in rural Kern County, to bring more educational choices to the area’s children. The schools use a blended learning model tailored to each student’s needs, and provide an enriching environment that prepares them for higher learning.
The mission for the K-8 Grimmway Academies in Arvin and Shafter, Calif., is to “close the achievement gap for students in the rural areas of Kern County by creating an environment for student excellence and wellbeing.” The Rod and Bob Grimm Memorial Scholarship Program, designed to reward superior academic performance for kids whose parents or guardians work for Grimmway, has invested more than $1.65 million in tuition support for employees’ children.
“It’s our 50th anniversary, and we continue to treat our employees as if they are the No. 1 thing we've got going on,” Huckaby noted. “We don't take them for granted. They're everything to us. That's the way Rod and Bob started it, and that's the way we continue since their passing, and that's the way we look forward to continuing into the future. We realize that without our employee base we’re nothing, regardless of who's leading the company. We put the time and effort out to make sure that we've got the best people in the right places and that we take care of them so they don't ever want to leave.” The company Rod and Bob Grimm founded truly does want everyone to live happily ever after — with fresh vegetables, of course.
Family-owned and headquartered in Bakersfield, California, Grimmway Farms traces its roots to a produce stand opened by the Grimm brothers in the early 1960s. Grimmway is a global produce leader and the world’s largest producer of carrots. Grimmway supplies more than 65 organic, USA-grown crops, and brands include Cal-Organic Farms and Bunny-Luv. Grimmway is committed to caring for customers and employees, honoring sustainable practices and preserving natural resources for future generations.