If they ever make a Netflix series about the persistent, pioneering family whose fortune was built in this big valley on a certain edible root crop, they'll want to cast a Barbara Stanwyck-type in the lead.
This latter-day Stanwyck would portray Barbara Grimm-Marshall, wife of Rod Grimm, the late Grimmway Farms co-founder — or so suggests Manuel Cunha, president of the Fresno-based Nisei Farmers League and would-be casting director of our fantasy epic.
"The Grimms are one of those historical families that stand tall in the face of adversity," Cunha told me last week. "(Grimm-Marshall) reminds me of some of the great matriarchs from television. The Grimms are like the family in 'The Big Valley' and Barbara Stanwyck is Barbara Grimm."
Grimm-Marshall, like Stanwyck's Victoria Barkley, is the widow who has quietly held together her family's vast San Joaquin Valley empire. In Grimm-Marshall's case, that empire is not livestock but agriculture — Grimmway is the world’s largest producer of carrots and the nation’s largest producer of organic vegetables — and plot antagonists are not cattle rustlers and predatory bankers but international trade barriers and California employment law.
In Kari Grimm-Anderson, widow of Rod Grimm's brother and company co-founder, Bob Grimm, Grimm-Marshall has had a kindred soul. Bob died in 2006 at age 54, eight years after older brother Rod, who passed in 1998 at age 51, but the women pressed on with the help of their combined eight children and a faithful management team now led by President Jeff Huckaby.
Losing the two, quietly dynamic brothers who launched Grimmway Farms exactly 50 years ago this month was devastating and, for a time, demoralizing, both in terms of company momentum and real life.
"After both deaths, there was definitely a pause, a deep breath," Grimm-Marshall said. "But I go back to the families working together and a management team in place that was executing the day-to-day. They knew the values, they knew how decisions were made, and (they knew) the pathway forward that they had been working under with both Rod and Bob."
Today, all eight adult Grimm children are members of the company board of directors: Rod's three, Melissa (Missy), 37, Catie, 35, and Brian, 28; and Bob's five, Brandon, 37, Kellie, 35, Brett, 29, Chase, 26, and David, 23. Brandon Grimm, Grimmway's general manager of organic operations, and Brett Grimm, who works in Cal-Organic sales, are active in the company's daily business. Brandon's position has been a steppingstone to president of the company.
"We've been very blessed, but our success has come with consequences, both my dad and my uncle passing away like they did," Brett said. "Going through those tragedies at such a young age was really hard — when my dad died I was 16, my brother Chase was 13 and my brother David was 10 — but I think it made us all a little tougher, a little more determined. Not having a father figure is hard but he left us a legacy and we are going to live up to it."
Losing the founding brothers eight years apart might have been considerably more jarring if not for Jeff Meger, Rod and Bob's nephew. After Rod died following his second bout with kidney cancer, Bob Grimm was elevated to president and Meger stepped into Bob's old role as vice president. After Bob died of a heart attack, Meger became president and Huckaby was promoted to vice president.
But Meger provided more than continuity.
"He was a mentor to me," said Brandon, who was 24 and fresh out of college when Bob Grimm died. "So much went away when Rod died, and Jeff (Meger) stepped in. Fast-forward to my father's passing in '06. For me, being the oldest in the family, having to learn so much, picking up the pieces — Jeff was instrumental in helping us move forward in that turbulent time."
At the end of 2015, Meger left to manage the company's expanding real estate portfolio and Huckaby was named president.
One aspect of Rod and Bob Grimm's legacy that lives on is the utter lack of pretension: The company, in many respects, feels almost like the two-brothers-and-a-roadside-stand that launched Grimmway more than a half-century ago.
"I remember when they had their (produce) business in San Juan Capistrano," said Grimm-Anderson, who met Bob at church in Anaheim and married him in 1980. "They had their office in a little trailer and Bob brought his dog to work every day. It was such a small, small operation. But when I look at the company today, it's hard not to still think of it as a mom-and-pop operation, when of course it is not."
It most certainly isn't. Grimmway does business in more than 20 countries and rings up hundreds of millions of dollars in annual sales. (Executives of the privately held company wouldn't be specific, although Huckaby said it was "substantially" larger than at the time of Rod's death, which The Californian then reported as $300 million.) Grimmway has 3,500 permanent employees, more than a quarter of whom have been with the company for more than 20 years.
Huckaby, who Bob Grimm hired away from Kern County rival Wm. Bolthouse Farms in 1998, said that dedication is a product of, among other things, sound hiring practices.
"Bob and Rod just went out and hired really good people," Huckaby said. "Rod used to say he would hire good people even before he needed them so they'd be trained and ready when the time came. We've tried to hire good people as well."
Today the company — increasingly automated — produces more than 65 organic, U.S.-grown crops and brands, including Cal-Organic Farms and Bunny-Luv. It grows in California (primarily Kern County), Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Oregon and Washington, utilizing 7,500 workers at peak season.
Grimmway and Bolthouse — which Butterfly, a Los Angeles-based private equity firm, is purchasing from Campbell Soup Co. for $510 million — essentially represent a carrot duopoly. If you didn't grow that carrot in your own backyard, chances are good you bought it, directly or indirectly, from one of the big two.
The other aspect of Rod and Bob Grimm's legacy that lives on is the family's Christian faith.
"So much of it comes back to our Christian values and treating people the way they want to be treated, the way we would want to be treated," Brandon said. "My dad and my uncle taught that. We make mistakes, too, but we try live up to that standard the best we can, always."
That character is reflected in the Grimms' often-stated indebtedness to their employees.
"Barbara is just one of those exceptional individuals who leads with compassion," Cunha said. "She cares, extremely, for all her workers, and they care for her. Her success is the people she hires (in executive positions) who carry forth the same philosophy. She knows she wouldn't be where she is without the workers — but, again, it's the employer who takes all the risks. They know they have an employer who cares."
The Grimms demonstrate their commitment with scholarship opportunities for the children of their employees (630 awards over 22 years worth $1.65 million), athletics and fitness programs, and picnics — none more ambitious than the one last week celebrating Grimmway's 50 years.
On April 14, 10,000 Grimmway employees and their family members gathered at the Kern County Fairgrounds for the company's massive annual picnic. They ate, they played, they handed out scholarships. Then, after the speeches, they kicked back to enjoy fireworks.
“Family-owned for 50 years and growing” was the theme, which seems plenty long enough, as tag lines go.
But a longer-still, more accurate theme for Grimmway's five decades in business — they could never fit all of this on a banner — might be: Family-owned for 50 years, through sweat, risk, triumph and tragedy, but thanks to an enduring appreciation for the founders' values, equipped for 50 more.
"The two families have managed to overcome a lot, and all of us together have forged ahead," Grimm-Anderson said. "Rod and Bob would be so proud and Bob in particular would be proud of Brandon and Brett, who are doing great things in the company. They would both be proud of how we all bonded together."