Huckaby Honored as Organic Grower of the Year
Jeff Huckaby, whose 25-year career with Grimmway Farms includes building its robust organic program and serving as president of the company, was honored as the "2022 Organic Grower of the Year" at last week’s Organic Grower Summit (OGS) in Monterey, CA.
Presenting the award was Cale Sledge, director of Western US sales of Fendt for AGCO. Sledge cited Huckaby’s leadership in transforming Grimmway Farms from a one-commodity grower-shipper to the nation’s largest organic vegetable grower, while still maintaining its top slot in the carrot business.
Huckaby joined Grimmway Farms in 1988 and soon was asked to manage the organic division. The learning curve was steep, but through trial and error, he and his team learned how to become organic growers. Building the soil, Huckaby said, unlocked the secret to organic farming. The company now has a rotation plan that looks five years into the future and plots what each of its tens of thousands of acres will be growing. Carrots make the rotation once every three years, with one of its other 65 crops filling in the other two years.
Today, Grimmway farms 56,000 acres of carrots and more than 60,000 acres of organic vegetables under its Cal-Organic Farms brand each year, with that acreage spread over seven states. Organic sales account for 60 percent of the company’s total revenues.
“We are pretty bullish [on the future of organics],” Huckaby said. “We believe there is lots of room for growth in the organic sector.”
Huckaby acknowledged a pair of important leaders that have been vital to his journey. The first was grower—and former owner of Cal-Organic—Danny Duncan, who “taught me how to farm organically. He was a great teacher.”
He also singled out Walter Robb, former president of Whole Foods, whom he called a visionary and said was instrumental in moving Grimmway Farms into the organic space in such a big way. Huckaby said Robb came to the company and told them he needed a large, consistent supplier of organic vegetables. That put the carrot giant on the diversified organic vegetable path.
Today, Huckaby said the company gets the same production from its organic ground that it achieves from its conventional crops. The biggest learning curve, he said, was understanding that the rotation crop is just as important as the main crop. He also noted that timing is super critical for organic crops.
“For conventional crops you have lots of tools,” he said. “If the crop is late, there are things you can do to speed it up. That’s not true for the organic crops. You can’t miss anything. You don’t cut corners. We’ve learned that timing and planning are very important.”
As a testament to the company’s commitment to organics and its overarching belief that sales will continue to climb, Huckaby said the company is still converting several thousand acres each year from conventional to organic production. Speaking specifically of carrots, he said all the growth is in the organic category as sales of conventional carrots are flat.
Sales of organics have the opportunity to grow at an even faster clip, Huckaby said, when the retail price can be closer to the conventional price. At that point, he believes many more consumers will make the choice to go organic.
Huckaby believes technology may be the answer in creating that price parity. By using approved chemicals, he said, it costs about $40 per acre to eliminate the weeds in a conventional carrot field. Hand labor is currently needed to accomplish that task in an organic carrot field at a cost of $1,000 per acre, which alone eliminates price parity at retail.
Technological advances such as laser weeding, however, offer promise that hand labor in the organic carrot field can be greatly reduced in the near future.
“This is going to be huge for organics,” he said. “Technology is exciting, and it will help organic production bring its costs down, which, in turn, should lead to increased consumption.”
In offering advice to the new farmer trying organic production for the first time, Huckaby said stick with it. In the very early years, Grimmway’s organic carrot fields were yielding 25 percent of the volume of a conventional field. Two decades later, he said organic yields and quality are on par with conventional production. And he reiterated “there is a lot of room for growth in the organic arena.”