Jeff Huckaby, President of Grimmway Farms and Cal-Organic Farm, is a fourth-generation farmer who learned to grow carrots and potatoes working for his grandfather at an early age. He’s also a first-generation organic farmer, the 2020 Organic Farmer of the Year, no less – an honor bestowed on him by the Organic Trade Association for his significant contribution to organic agriculture and trade.
“I see organic as a bright spot in U.S. agriculture, offering tremendous opportunity to change the future of our food system. As consumers become more and more interested in sustainable food production, nutrition and quality, organic farming can provide a path forward to improve the state of agriculture in the U.S.” — Jeff Huckaby
Jeff has been the visionary for Grimmway Farm’s organic success, helping develop year-round programs with most major retailers, and is a much sought-after speaker and educator on what it takes to grow organically and be sustainable.
Born and raised in the southern San Joaquin Valley, Jeff is married to Michelle and they have two grown-up sons, Matthew and Austin.
We spoke to him about his career, how he got into organic and what it means for the future of U.S. agriculture.
Tell us more about how you got into farming, and into organic.
I got hooked on farming at an early age and have been in the carrot business now for more than thirty years. Farming runs in my family – I’m a fourth-generation farmer – and for the first ten years of my career I farmed conventionally. Then I became a first-generation organic farmer.
And how long have you been farming organically? Can you tell us about you got into it?
I started farming organically about 22 years ago, when I was a farm manager for Grimmway in Bakersfield, California. I was asked by brothers Rod and Bob Grimm who own the business to try growing carrots organically; the chemicals we traditionally used were under threat of being phased out so my task was to explore alternatives. I wasn’t convinced that a root crop could be successfully grown that way, but I was proved wrong. After three or four years, I experienced how bringing the soil back to life with compost and cover crops gave me better quality and higher yields. At that point I became addicted to growing as much organically as I could and figuring out the rotations that worked best and benefitted the next crop.
So, what started out as an experiment quickly became the way we love to grow carrots at Grimmway.
What size is Grimmway’s organic operation?
Over the past 22 years, our organic operation has grown from a couple of hundred acres to more than 50,000 acres (circa 20,230 hectares) of certified organic vegetables. By building up the soil, we’ve been able to convert over 95 percent of our owned land to organic and grow over 65 different organic vegetables each year. We still do things the same way as when we first got into organics – albeit on a larger scale, with bigger plantings.
Today, our organic yields consistently equal or surpass our conventional yields and our organic footprint has expanded to cover six different U.S. states. This has enabled us to extend our growing seasons in order to supply our large supermarket customers with year-round production. We have found that growing in the right area at the right time and planting in season leads to higher-quality produce.
How important is the conventional side of Grimmway’s carrot business?
It’s important as it allows us to provide our customers with variety and choice – not every consumer is prepared to pay more for organic.
However, organic is where our growth is. Every year we grow less conventional carrots as the domestic demand is less. Ten years from now, if the trend continues, it may be that we won’t grow any carrots conventionally.
What does sustainability mean to you and what are some of the sustainability practices you are using at Grimmway?
For me, sustainability is primarily about leaving the soil in a better condition when we pull our crop out of the ground than when we planted it in the first place. Our aim is to ensure that the soil is stronger and healthier for each additional crop. We have a program in place to achieve that, which includes composting all of our fields, growing a certain rotation of crops and using cover crops to fix nitrogen and add organic matter to the soil. We’ll grow an animal feed crop, harvest it, take it to the dairies and sell or trade it for their manure, which we then use to make compost, completing a full circle.
Water consumption is another important sustainability issue. In drought-prone California it’s a particular challenge so we work hard to be good stewards and to use water as efficiently as possible. We have invested in water banking, for example, to capture and bank water during years of excess to help build the aquifer and offset years of drought.
We also consider food miles. Rather than relying on a central facility which would involve transporting all of our produce across the country to a single location, we have nineteen facilities which we try to locate in the middle of growing regions. That means that when we’re harvesting, we don’t have to transport the produce for miles, which helps us reduce some of our carbon footprint.
We have a sustainability team and they’re constantly reviewing and looking for new ways to improve our facilities, the farm, our practices and our packaging. The more we can do from a sustainability standpoint, the more efficient we will be, and the lower our cost of production will be.
What impact has the pandemic had on demand for organic produce?
We’ve seen demand for organic produce increase at a strong pace. Despite economic uncertainty, consumers show no indication of shifting their purchases away from organic fruits and vegetables. We saw the same thing in the United States in 2008 after the financial crash; sales of organics stayed steady.
It seems that people who care about healthy living and eating are still prepared to pay for high-quality organic produce and will make cuts in other areas in order to be able to do so. In light of the pandemic, people are prioritizing their health so that they’re in good shape, better able to fight off illness – and I think this will continue.
This should encourage more farmers worldwide to grow organically as that’s where the demand is.
How do you see the future of organic?
I see organic as a bright spot in U.S. agriculture, offering tremendous opportunity to change the future of our food system. As consumers become more and more interested in sustainable food production, nutrition and quality, organic farming can provide a path forward to improve the state of agriculture in the U.S.