ALUMNI HALL OF FAME PROFILE:

Jeff Huckaby, “a rock star in the produce industry”

Huckaby profile photo

Jeff Huckaby, president of Grimmway Enterprises, stands in the middle of a carrot field south of Bakersfield during shooting of a company Christmas video.

BY CHRISTINE BEDELL
Alumni Engagement Specialist
cbedell1@csub.edu

Jeff Huckaby was just 11 years old when he started farming, working for his grandfather in Arvin during the summer.

His grandfather, an Arkansas-born grower of potatoes and carrots, would pick Huckaby up at 5 a.m., drive him out to the middle of nowhere, and drop him off. Huckaby would repair sprinklers, pick up trash, clean up the equipment yard and drive a tractor around.

“It was the work nobody else volunteered to do,” Huckaby said with a chuckle.

It was grunt work, but it sparked in Huckaby a life-long passion for farming that’s propelled him to the top of the organic produce industry. He is president of Grimmway Enterprises, the world’s largest grower, packer and shipper of carrots and the nation’s largest grower of organic vegetables.

Grimmway is Bakersfield-based but farms in seven states, operates 18 processing facilities, employs 7,500 people and sells worldwide.

The North High and CSUB grad attributes his rise to good mentoring and impeccable career timing, starting with getting in on the ground floor of the baby carrot boom at Wm Bolthouse Farms and then Grimmway’s foray into the organic vegetable business.

Others attribute it to hard work, knowing his business literally from the ground up and a likability that makes the CEOs of giants like Whole Foods, Walmart and Albertsons want to do business with him.

“He’s so instrumental to our relationship with the huge retail stores,” said Kari Grimm-Anderson, widow of Grimmway co-founder Bob Grimm. “They all want to talk to Jeff Huckaby. He’s kind of a rock star in the produce industry.”

FOUR GENERATIONS OF FARMERS

Huckaby, 52, is a fourth-generation farmer. His paternal great grandfather grew cotton and corn in Arkansas. His grandfather moved his family to the Arvin area after World War II; Huckaby’s mother grew up in Arvin, too.

Huckaby early family

This picture of Jeff Huckaby’s family was taken in the early 1970s. Back: His mother, Joan, and father, Ron. Front: Huckaby stands between his sister, Ronda, and brother, Rob.

Huckaby continued working for his grandfather throughout high school and college. Not only did he learn more and more about the carrot business, he got to know the local giants in the field, the Bolthouses, the Grimms and Mike Yurosek, father of the baby carrot.

Huckaby was the first in his family to graduate from college when he earned his bachelor’s degree in Petroleum Land Studies from CSUB in 1989. He chose an oil major thinking maybe he didn’t want to farm his entire life. But that all changed after he returned home from working for Occidental Petroleum in Latin America.

Local farmers encouraged Huckaby to return to his agricultural roots, and that’s what he did.

“I had a passion for farming, having grown up in it, living it, and it being in our family for so long,” Huckaby said. “You either have a passion for faming or you don’t, and you won’t last long if you don’t.”

Jeff Huckaby (left), his brother, Rob (middle), and sister, Ronda

In this favorite family photo, Jeff Huckaby (left), his brother, Rob (middle), and sister, Ronda, had spent the weekend with their grandparents on their ranch and while they were playing, got themselves covered in mud.

Wm Bolthouse Farms hired Huckaby in 1990 to run its baby carrot processing facility. Nine months later, Bolthouse offered Huckaby his pick of jobs at the rapidly expanding company and he chose to return to the fields and manage the planting and growing of carrots.

Having overseen the processing facility, Huckaby knew exactly what carrots needed to look like to yield the most two-inch pieces. Bolthouse’s baby carrot footprint grew from hundreds to thousands of acres in just a few years.

“It was one of the first and few vegetable snacking items that could compete with potato chips or less healthy items,” he said of baby carrots’ popularity. “And it was in a convenient, ready-to-eat form. It doubled the consumption of carrots per capita in the United States very quickly.”

People started noticing Huckaby’s knack for growing carrots and in 1998, Grimmway hired him as a ranch manager growing its carrots.

“He had a stellar reputation as a great farmer and that’s what we were looking for in our farming division,” Grimm-Anderson said.

Then Grimmway asked Huckaby to take a look at its organic ground, which wasn’t doing well.  He said he would, but he didn’t think carrots could be grown organically.

Huckaby started growing several hundred acres of organic carrots and had a little bit of success. Organic carrots are grown every three years in the same soil, so next he had to figure out what to grow in years two and three.

He did well with lettuce, tomatoes and onions.

“All of a sudden we had better yields and better quality of carrots,” Huckaby said. “Better than I thought we would do.”

Grimmway became interested in growing more organics and in 2001, did it by purchasing nearby Cal Organic Farms, which was growing 30 to 40 different vegetables.

Huckaby became Cal-Organic’s general manager and for three years worked side-by-side with its original owner, Danny Duncan, learning to grow different organics.

Grimmway first expanded its organic vegetable business

Grimmway first expanded its organic vegetable business by purchasing Cal-Organic Farms in 2001, and tapped Huckaby to run it. Here his family is six years later (l t r): Austin, Jeff, Michelle and Matthew.

The big retail chains weren’t yet buying organic vegetables, so Grimmway focused on selling a lot of items in very small quantities to health food stores like Whole Foods and Wild Oats Markets. That would change.

Huckaby traces the beginning of Grimmway’s explosive growth back to a conversation he had with the president and chief operations officer of Whole Foods, Walter Robb, in fields near Huckaby’s current office in Arvin.

Robb said Whole Foods wanted to grow from a handful to several hundred stores and needed a partner to supply it with enough quality organic veg.

“I told Walter, ‘We’re your company,’” Huckaby recalled. “We’ll do whatever you need.’”

Huckaby and Robb, who would later be elevated to Whole Foods’ CEO, built their respective companies side-by-side. If Whole Foods needed 20 acres of lettuce, Grimmway would grow 25 or 30 to take care of Whole Foods and sell the rest to others such as Kroger and Safeway that were coming to organics in a small way.

“He was always able to make Whole Foods a priority and get us the product we needed so we could grow and meet our customers’ needs,” Robb said.

Robb repeatedly called Huckaby a “good guy” with an infectious enthusiasm for growing produce and an always open line of communication.

“I’d text him and I’d say, ‘Hey, I’m down at Ralph’s and they’ve got kale for 99 (cents), what’s going on?’”

And Grimmway grows the best quality produce, Robb said. You can see it in the vitality of the green, the structure of the lettuce, he said.

“Grimmway grows beautiful stuff,” said Robb. “If you’ve ever been in the produce business, you understand you can look at 10 boxes of broccoli and there’s going to be one or two that stand out as just better quality. The way they’re grown, the color. The way they’re picked. Their stuff is the best stuff. It just is.”

Huckaby checks out stalks of celery with one of his employees, Joe Pulido.

Huckaby checks out stalks of celery with one of his employees, Joe Pulido.

Over time, the demand for organic vegetables grew and grew. Grimmway was well-positioned to meet it because the Grimm family had invested in an ample supply of ground not only around Bakersfield but in the Cummings Valley, Cuyama, Imperial County and the Coachella Valley. It allowed Grimmway to have organics every day of the year, not just seasonally, which was unheard of then, Huckaby said.

Grimmway was also able to meet the demand for a wider variety of organic vegetables, such as colored radishes, kohlrabi, red and green dandelions and different kinds of kale. It became a one-stop shop for retailers who wanted a little bit of everything.

“Word started traveling that retailers could pull into Cal-O and get a truck load or a half a truckload of 25 or 60 different items in whatever amounts they needed,” Huckaby said. “That was huge for us.”

Today Grimmway is the largest supplier of organic vegetables to Whole Foods and Albertsons/Vons, provides a majority of organic carrots sold by Walmart and Kroger, and grows every carrot Costco sells worldwide.

Many products sold under grocery stores’ private label come from Grimmway, including O at Safeway and 365 at Whole Foods.

BECOMING MR. PRESIDENT

The story of Huckaby’s ascension from running Cal Organic to running Grimmway is a sad one.

Bob Grimm, who founded Grimmway Farms with his brother Rodney in the 1960s, had asked Huckaby to run Cal Organic. They worked very closely together; they even hunted and fished together.

In 2006, Grimm died unexpectedly of a heart condition at just 54 years old. It happened around the same time Huckaby’s wife, Michelle, lost her grandmother and Huckaby lost the grandfather who  taught him to farm.

“It was such a hard time,” Michelle said. “He was grieving a friend, a co-worker, the man who let him do what he wanted to do.”

Jeff Huckaby working for Grimmway Farms’ co-founder Bob Grimm

Jeff Huckaby, right, would have been “perfectly content” working for Grimmway Farms’ co-founder Bob Grimm, left, his entire life, according to his wife, Michelle. When Grimm died unexpectedly in 2006, Huckaby was named Grimmway’s executive vice president and later, president.

It was never on the Huckabys’ radar that Jeff would be tapped to run Grimmway. But the family asked him to be executive vice president, co-managing the company with Grimm nephew Jeff Meger. Huckaby ran Cal-Organic plus most of Grimmway’s fresh facilities and its engineering, construction, government relations and regulatory compliance functions.

“It was his mission to keep the company running for Bob,” Michelle said.

Not only did Grimmway’s farming enterprises continue to rapidly expand but its real estate portfolio did, too. At the end of 2015, Meger set off to manage that and “lone survivor” Huckaby was named Grimmway’s president.

For the last two and a half years he’s been building a new team at Grimmway, which has seen a lot of retirements. He’s also served on some important ag boards, including the California State Board of Food and Agriculture and the Dean’s Advisory Council for Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences. 

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue recently appointed Huckaby to the USDA Fruit and Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee.

He very clearly articulates how government policies impact business, whether it’s a minimum wage increase or a water curtailment, said Huckaby’s close friend Rob Yraceburu, president of Wonderful Orchards.

“I’ve heard him say really clearly to people, ‘I don’t grow trees. I grow carrots and I can grow carrots in other places,’” Yraceburu said. “’And so when you make decisions, you’re making it less competitive to grow carrots in the state of California. But my family is here, my employees are here. We don’t want to leave.’”

Jeff Huckaby's speech

Jeff Huckaby is good at explaining to government regulators how their decisions impact farmers’ ability to do business, said Wonderful Orchards President Rob Yraceburu.

Outside of home and work, Huckaby is an outdoorsman who likes and is good at hunting and fishing, Yraceburu said. He’s incredibly loyal and generous, he said, without seeking any credit.

“If he senses somebody is a little short on cash he’ll take care of it and they won’t even know it,” Yraceburu said, hesitant to give details because it could cause embarrassment.

Huckaby also served on the Bakersfield Christian High School board for several years. He helped put the institution on firmer financial footing by helping restructure the board, create new policies and expand the donor base, said Karen Dierks, vice president of advancement.

“He had the business mind the school needed,” she said.

HUCKABY AT HOME

Jeff and Michelle Huckaby met at Heritage Bible Church in Bakersfield when they were 10 years old and started dating the summer before she entered high school. They’ve been together ever since, marrying in 1988.

“When you’re presented with the best, you don’t have to look any further,” she said, beaming.

Michelle and Jeff Huckaby celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary this year.

Michelle and Jeff Huckaby celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary this year.

Michelle describes her husband as hard-working but also fun-loving. When he and his brother worked for their grandfather moving pipe – getting paid by the number of pipes moved -- they’d get up at dawn, work as fast as they could, then spend the rest of the day swimming or hanging out.

When he was the planting manager at Wm Bolthouse Farms, Michelle said, Huckaby would work 100 hours a week during the peak of carrot planting season and come home at night orange.

And he’s not one to relax on vacations, insisting on seeing everything a new place has to offer.

But his family is everything to him, Michelle said. The couple has two sons, Matthew, a 24-year-old financial analyst for E. & J. Gallo Winery, and Austin, a 22-year-old auditor whose firm KPMG has sent him to Ole Miss for graduate school.

“When my kids were babies, he wanted to be the one to give them a bath at night and rock them to sleep,” Michelle remembered. “That was his special time.”

Even as his work responsibilities grew, Huckaby continued making time for his children, Austin and Matthew said.

“Despite the fact he works incredibly hard, and has my entire life, he’s the kind of dad who made it home for dinner,” Austin said.

When Huckaby had to work on Saturdays, he’d buy them doughnuts and chocolate milk and drive them around the farm. When he travelled, he often took Michelle and the boys with him.

The Huckabys at Matthew’s wedding

The Huckabys at Matthew’s wedding (l to r): Jeff, Michelle, Matthew, Morgan and Austin.

“He’s the best dad in the world,” Matthew said. “He is incredibly wise and calm and always there to help. I can call my dad any time of the day and hear right back from him, whether it’s related to career or education or just life.”

Michelle Huckaby is the one who nominated her husband for the CSUB Alumni Hall of Fame. She’s not only proud of what he’s accomplished, she said, she wanted people to know something special about the university, from which she earned two degrees.

“I think people need to know good people come to this school,” Michelle said. “This school puts out hard-working, smart, intelligent, kind people.”



CSUB Alumni Hall of Fame

Jeff Huckaby is one of four people who will be inducted into the CSUB Alumni Hall of Fame Feb. 15, 2019, at Seven Oaks Country Club in Bakersfield.

The other members of the 2019 Alumni Hall of Fame class are Charlotte Brandt, Tom Corson and Gene Tackett.

Learn more about the gala, including sponsorship opportunities.