When most people think of Grimmway Farms, they think of carrots, and why not? After all, Grimmway processes 40,000 of California’s 75,000 acres of carrots, and 80% of the U.S. total is processed in the state. On an average day, they send out so many truckloads that if those trucks formed a convoy, it would stretch for 2½ miles. That’s 10 million pounds of carrots a day. And they’re doing that pretty much day in and day out, every day of the year.
Grimmway has come a long way from when brothers Bob and Rod Grimm started growing sweet corn back in the 1960s on the same ground that is now home to Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Their nephew, Jeff Meger, now serves as president of the company, which is headquartered in Bakersfield, CA. And today they process — and grow — a lot more than carrots. In fact, while they grow about 40% of the conventionally grown carrots they pack, they grow 100% of the organic vegetables they pack, carrots and otherwise.
While many people may know that with 55,000 acres, Grimmway is America’s largest grower — a glance at AVG’s Top 100 would tell you that — nearly half that acreage is organic. In other words, with 26,000 acres, Grimmway is far and away America’s biggest organic farmer. The organic division is called Cal-Organic, and it started with just a quarter acre of lettuce back in 1983.
In 2001, Grimmway acquired Cal-Organic, which has obviously enjoyed tremendous success. Ask him why, and Grimmway’s organic farming manager, Todd Brendlin, will tell you it’s the very fact that they own all their organic acreage. “There are no outside growers; it’s 100% in-house,” he says. “We are able to grow a consistent product year-round because we control it from the ground up.”
Brendlin’s not a member of the Grimm family, though his family is in farming. His dad, Bill Moresco, grows lettuce for Tanimura & Antle in Salinas. Brendlin also worked for his uncle at Ocean Mist Farms in the Coachella Valley before joining Grimmway in 2002. He began overseeing organic production in 2005. Right away, Brendlin was surprised at the tremendous quality they were getting.
“I never thought you could do it,” he says. “I never believed you could control the pests and nutritionally provide for the crop using organic materials.”
One factor is that organic materials have improved in recent years. But even more important, he thinks Grimmway’s strategy of planting organic crops on their best ground is huge.
By best ground, Brendlin means good soil tilth, drainage, sufficient levels of essential nutrients, plenty of microorganisms, low weed pressure, and the ideal pH range for the crop. Most vegetables thrive in the pH range of 6.0 to 7.0, and pH has enormous effects on productivity. In soils with low pH (acidic soils) phosphorus, calcium, and magnesium are most likely to be deficient.
The most common mistake growers who begin farming organically make is to use some of their worst ground for an organic crop. It’s a mistake Brendlin sees often, and he thinks it’s because the grower is doing it as an experiment, and so does not wish to risk using his best ground. But by using ground that produces marginal crops conventionally, the novice organic grower is practically guaranteeing his first organic crop won’t be successful.
“That’s what I see people doing all the time,” he says. “But crops grown
in healthy, balanced soils don’t have
to be sprayed.”
Rotation Is Crucial
Interestingly enough, the reason Grimmway farms 50-plus organic crops gets back to carrots, at least in part. Tellingly, on the conventional side, their primary focus is growing carrots and potatoes. Even with the use of soil fumigants and conventional chemicals you must have a large land base in order to rotate a root crop to prevent pests and diseases. For example, carrots are especially prone to root-knot nematodes. They don’t have the tools of using conventional soil fumigants on their organic ground. So after a carrot crop, they will rotate into a brassica, solanaceae-potato or tomato, or leafy green. “Carrots are the main driver for us,” says Brendlin. “We need crops to rotate with carrots; otherwise we’d have a lot of fallow ground sitting there.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge in organic farming is weeds. Coming over from conventional farming a few years ago, Brendlin thought there was no way they were going to be able to handle the notoriously tough nutsedge. There’s no secret to how to eliminate it; it just takes a lot of work. After every crop they go through the field with a spring tooth chisel, till up the nutsedge, and let it dry out on top of the soil. “It’s not a one-time deal — it can take several years to eliminate out of your field — but it can be done,” he says. “That’s another reason we own all our own ground, over the years we’ve been able to eliminate virtually all the weeds from our fields to the point that we have a weed-free policy.”
Weed-free does not mean sterile, though, not by a long shot. One of the rewards of organic farming, says Brendlin, is achieving a balanced healthy soil rich in organic matter that’s full of beneficial organisms and bacteria that are constantly breaking down that organic material so it can be available to the plants. Beneficial organisms also compete with and suppress disease-causing organisms. “Organic farming is a production system that sustains the health of the soils,” he concludes. “More often you are feeding the soil, not the plant.”
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