Grimmway Farms’ Experiences in Carrots, Organic Production
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. 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.”
Carrots were first found in Afghanistan, and they didn’t look anything like those common today. For one thing, they were purple. It was the Dutch, who favor orange, that bred them for the dominant color today. Grimmway sells orange and yellow bunches, but they also have a rainbow bunch that includes red, purple, and cream-colored carrots.
Many kids love carrots, in part because of the “babies” and other fun shapes and packages they come in. Having more fun colors of carrots available could only help increase consumption among kids, which would, of course, be a big driver of future sales. Grimmway’s Todd Brendlin says they will certainly remain on the lookout for new varieties.
“There’s always that interest out there for different colors,” he says, “but breeding carrots with pigments is tough.”
A Higher Level
Grimmway Farms is headquartered at the south end of the San Joaquin Valley, and for most of the year the weather allows them to plant a variety of vegetables. Like other big California growers of lettuce and other leafy greens, they handle winter cold temperatures by farming in the southern deserts. So from about December through March or April, they will farm in the Coachella Valley, where Palm Springs is located, the Imperial Valley, which is east of San Diego, and Winterhaven, which is near the Arizona border.
But unlike the other big California growers of leafy greens, who farm in the Salinas Valley close enough to the Pacific Ocean to keep summer temperatures relatively cool, Grimmway doesn’t farm near the ocean. In the summer, they beat the summer heat by farming organic cool-weather vegetables at higher elevations, says Todd Brendlin. They farm in two locations from May to September or October that are not part of the normal seasonal rotation followed by other bigger grower-shippers.
One is the 300-square-mile Cuyama Valley, which is located north of Santa Barbara at an elevation of 2,300 feet. It is surrounded by mountains and sits at the foothills of the Sierra Madre mountains, which backs up to Los Padres National Forest. Cuyama is home to not only acres and acres of apple orchards and ranches, but also was a well-known area for oil production, though the principal industry is now agriculture.
The other summer farming location for cool crops is Tehachapi, up in the mountains by the same name at 4,400 feet. Tehachapi is near Edwards Air Force base and is located between the San Joaquin Valley and Mojave Desert. Grimmway’s outside growing time there is limited to the summer, though they grow tomatoes year-round in their state-of-the-art greenhouse.
Foregoing the coast for the mountains to beat the warm California sun is an advantage for Grimmway because part of their strategy is to own all the land they farm, and California coast land is extremely expensive. “We’ve figured out a way to make it work year-round without having to go to the coast,” says Brendlin.
How ‘Bout These Babies
Many people aren’t aware that so-called “baby” carrots aren’t really babies at all. They’re neither particularly small or young, but they are very different than standard, or as they are called in the business, fresh carrots. First introduced in 1989, they are bred to be long and slender, then cut into 2-inch pieces and lathed to a uniform width. To say they revolutionized the carrot business is putting it mildly, as today they are the most popular type of carrots.
Of course, they’re not really a “variety type” at all, but most often different varieties are used to produce baby carrots than fresh carrots, explains Grimmway’s Todd Brendlin. In a processed carrot they are looking more for a straight to cylindrical shape versus the traditional tapering cone shape found in a fresh carrot. The carrots used to produce baby carrots have been bred to be much slimmer and longer.
“We want them to compete with each other so they don’t get broad shouldered,” he says. “The plant populations are higher, about double the number of plants per acre as for fresh carrots.” (Brendlin declines to state exactly how many “baby” carrots are planted per acre, saying that such information is proprietary. The baby carrots might be cute, but the competition among their producers is fierce.)