On the surface, tradition and innovation might seem to be at odds with each other, but to me they are — and must be —inextricably linked. The words of Grimmway Farms’ founders continue to remind us that we must always meet our commitment to provide customers with “consistent quality, service and competitive pricing,” while looking for new ways to fulfill that promise. We never forget that our early growth and success was predicated on exploring “new technology” to engineer a machine that would perfect the “baby carrot” into a mainstay of school lunches and healthy snacks.
The time-honored quote, “Innovation is anything but business as usual,” reflects how we think about innovation. While it extends to all aspects of operations, there are several key areas the industry can concentrate on as we look to the future.
Calling your dedicated employees your most important asset shouldn’t be a company slogan; it’s an authentic description of how we should value our workforce. Yet, as a people-based enterprise, the industry must embrace technologies that provide tools and resources to operate with greater efficiency and manageably scale our business. Utilizing the latest technologies enables us to effectively manage costs, whether by employing GPS guidance-equipped tractors, saving both time and fuel, or harnessing the power of software modeling programs and drones to more accurately predict crop yields.
As we look ahead, we expect technology to play an even more significant role in how we approach our operations, including soil and crop sensors to assess soil health and irrigation needs. At Grimmway we will continue to be early adopters to ensure our workforce has the latest tools to enhance efficiency, safety and yields.
With the vagaries of climate change, droughts and water shortages, good business practices require us to diversify our footprint. Innovative approaches must be taken to how we manage and organize farming and production. While the majority of Grimmway’s operations are in Kern County, for example, we also recognize the imperative to yield more crops — and more frequently — by diversifying our farming sites and geographic footprint.
While we foresee our local Kern County operations as always being central to our business, we’ve expanded our farming throughout California and nationwide, including Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Florida and Georgia, and continue to look at more areas of opportunity. A regional production model enables us to increase yield and produce crops on a year-round basis, be more responsive to customers’ particular needs and lessens travel times from “farm to table.”
Our industry certainly doesn’t look like it did 20 years ago, and will change even more over the next two decades. However, if past is prologue, I am extremely optimistic about its future.
There hasn’t been any single advancement in memory with greater importance to our industry than the shift to organics. Grimmway’s organic division started more than 20 years ago but advanced to a new level with the acquisition of Cal-Organic Farms, and I spent my early years with the company helping grow that division. The challenge now is keeping pace with demand, while managing the higher farming costs with consumer preferences and expectations.
What products are integral to the organic line, and which are just too difficult or time-consuming to grow and harvest? How do we balance the need for harvesting certain organics by hand, versus the customer’s willingness to pay for that cost? We’re working on solutions, including new harvesting equipment and zero-waste strategies that involve preventing, reducing and recycling 80 percent of our landfill waste to more productive streams.
We’re also innovating our farming ratios, with a move away from bulk commodities toward more ready-to-eat and pre-packaged goods.
Innovation also means caring for the planet. It’s not only the right thing to do; it’s just good for our business. Our operations depend upon a reliable and affordable supply of energy, with an eye toward environmental responsibility.
We’ve implemented new technologies to minimize our use of fossil fuels and reduce our carbon footprint. We’ve converted to energy-saving LED lighting throughout our facilities, expanded our solar farm to a 4.2-megawatt system, and replaced all of our metal halide lamps with lead-free fluorescent tubes.
Our industry certainly doesn’t look like it did 20 years ago, and will change even more over the next two decades. However, if past is prologue, I am extremely optimistic about its future. The ability to innovate, use technology for good, increase yields to bring more healthy products to more people — while never losing sight of our responsibility to customers and the planet — is not only a force for success, but a force for good.
Jeff Huckaby is the president of Grimmway Farms. Headquartered in Bakersfield, CA, Grimmway is a global produce leader that supplies more than 135 products — grown entirely within the United States.