Inside the National Organic Standards Board w/ Logan Petrey Linkenhoger
Interview with Logan Petrey Linkenhoger, Organics Ranch Manager at Grimmway Farms
National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) member Logan Petrey Linkenhoger joins Organics Unpacked to explain the board’s work and impact on the National Organic Program. As the Organics Ranch Manager at Grimmway Farms, Logan also discusses the growing market share of organic vegetables, as well as future challenges in organic farming.
Learn more about Avé Organics: www.aveorganics.com
Learn more about the Grimmway Farms: www.grimmway.com
Connect with our guest on LinkedIn
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INTRO: Welcome to Organics Unpacked, a podcast for the business-minded organic grower — an interview podcast where we hear from the top experts in the commercial organic industry, with a focus on the business elements of organic growing both in and out of the field. You will gain insight and grow your operation. This show is brought to you ad-free by Avé Organics, a Wilbur-Ellis company. To learn more about Avé Organics, visit our program notes. In the meantime, enjoy the show.
TOM: Hello, everyone. Thanks for tuning in today. Welcome to a new episode of Organics Unpacked, a podcast where we discuss organic farming from a practical perspective. I’m your host, Tom Buman. Today, I’m joined by Logan Linkenhoger. Logan is the Farm Manager of Grimmway Farms and serves on the National Organic Standards Board. Logan, welcome to Organics Unpacked.
LOGAN: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
TOM: Absolutely. We’re excited to have you today. You certainly bring a lot of experience to our program today, and it’s great to have you on. Before we get started, Logan, I’d really like to get some information on your background. What brings you to this point today?
LOGAN: Sure. So it started very, very young because I grew up on a farm — a conventional farm — in south Georgia. It was a produce farm, and we did watermelons. We did greens. So the summers were focused on anything to do with the watermelons. So, when we were kids, it was either stickering or drying off the watermelons or wiping them down or cantaloupes. Then, as we got older, and strength came along with it, it was throwing them or putting them in the bins, whatever the case is. We really worked on that crop the most, but there was definitely weekend work and stuff like that and all other commodities. So the love of farming started very young. I didn’t necessarily think I would pursue it until I went to college and got into the biology side. I thought I was going to be a vet, but I was the only one awake during plant science. So I thought I might need to stay on that track because I was struggling with animal science. So I stayed, and then I got my master’s from the University of Georgia in agronomy, or it was actually plant protection and pest management, to be technical. And after that, I became an agronomist for various companies and worked for Generation Farms as an agronomist on both the conventional/organic side. Then took the organic farming position when it came open and jumped in with a lot of faith and a lot of support from everybody and tried to figure that out in the Southeast. And we’re still trying to figure it out. It’s a very complicated area that comes with a lot of struggles because of the weather, mostly due to weather. Now, we have sandy soils. So there are lots of challenges there in trying to make organics work, but it’s happening. It’s, again, a lot of support from other people from universities, and Grimmway brings its huge, long profession and a lot of wisdom there. So that definitely helped us out.
TOM: So, as a young person, you didn’t deal with organic fruits and vegetables. But as your career has progressed, you’ve kind of made your way into that.
LOGAN: That’s right.
About Grimmway Farms
TOM: Okay. But tell us about Grimmway Farms.
LOGAN: Sure. I’ve been with the company for two-and-a-half years now, and their legacy is very strong. In most of the organic associations, they’re very well known. And the president Jeff Huckaby has created a very strong foundation for Grimmway. They started out with just growing carrots and trying to find that rotation with some other commodities and realized that the rotation needs to be the foundation, at least, for whatever you want to grow. It doesn’t matter if you just want to grow carrots. You can’t. You need the rest of the program, the holistic approach, to make it work. So they purchased Cal-Organic, I want to say, in 2001. Don’t quote me on the dates. I’m not positive, but around 2001. Then they started. It was a seasonal deal in California from Mr. Danny Duncan, and then they expanded it. They learned the commodities, and they learned varieties and made it a 52-week program, which is something unique. And Grimmway is able to produce, I want to say, 30 or more items 52 weeks of the year for their customers. That’s been a huge deal for Grimmway, to be able to expand their carrot program, and that’s taken 20 – 30 years to figure that out. It’s taken a lot of diligence and a lot of persistence.
TOM: So it sounds like Grimmway, their primary product is carrots, maybe?
Grimmway Farms Products
TOM: What other commodities or products do they grow?
LOGAN: So they do the carrots you’ve seen on the shelf. They’re like in the bunch. They’ve got the typical Cal‑O label. That would be a bunched carrot. That’s very minimal compared to the bagged: the baby carrots, the celery carrots, the chips and the shreds and all of those. So there are two different product lines there. Then they have the vege program that they rotate with, so you’re looking at any of the kales. It’s like the kale greens or the mustards/collards. They do chards, beets, onions, scallions, potatoes, fennel, cilantro, parsley. It’s hard to think of one that they don’t. Bok choy, leeks — a lot of different items. They’ll do some seasonals: sweet corn, watermelon, green beans. They kind of fill up the shelf. They could.
TOM: Right, and so they’re put in rotation, right? Carrots are the primary thing, but then they’re also put in locations?
LOGAN: Yeah, the rotations of that. So carrots will usually be on a three-year rotation, which is typical. It’s typical for conventional, and it’s worked for organics, as well. That’s followed by a crop family that makes that condition best, trying to rotate around soil pests, things like that, so there’s not a buildup in the soil.
TOM: So, when they think about it — Grimmway Farms — when you think about a rotation, do you figure the rotation is like a set rotation, where you know what the next three crops are going to be? Or is it more based on some prices or based on field conditions? How do you determine what that rotation’s going to be?
LOGAN: Sure. The rotation is kind of set there because, typically, that rotation is developed for soil pest prevention or, at least, not having those populations increase. So, regardless of the markets, things like that, they’re typically going to follow that rotation. They kind of have it figured out which vege is going to — they stay relatively steady, I would say. You’re going to have so much kale to so many beets. Those, kind of, maintain, and so it’s more of an outline. They know the rotation three years out. It’s in agronomy. It’s an agronomic decision.
Geographical Footprint of Grimmway Farms
TOM: So, then, what’s your geographic footprint of Grimmway Farms?
LOGAN: I apologize. I wish I knew the number of states. I want to say they’re forming in, maybe, 11. But anyway, they’re in the Pacific Northwest. They’re in California, and they’re also in the Georgia/Florida area.
TOM: So does the rotation depend on where you are, which state you’re in?
TOM: Or is it kind of the same rotation in every place?
LOGAN: No, sir. It is different in the east coast. I can’t necessarily speak for the Pacific Northwest versus the California areas. But in the Southeast, we grow other things. Our crop portfolio is much smaller because of the inherent risks and because the pests are different. So we have some pests for beets. For example, we have the webworm — which I don’t know if the California folks are familiar with — and it’s an awful little bug. So we actually reduced our production window down significantly to avoid this pest. So, therefore, our acres are going to be less, and so it’s going to affect the rotation scheduling of that too. So it is different. Our soil pests seem to be different. They’re more populated by something called Rhizoctonia than they are by Pythium, and so the rotations do have to accommodate the agronomic issues for that area.
TOM: So Grimmway Farms produces both organic crops and your traditional, maybe, non-organic crops. Is that right?
LOGAN: So everything — we grow all organics — everything produced organically by Cal‑O or Grimmway Farms is grown by Grimmway. Then we grow conventional carrots only. There are no other supporting crops to that.
Market Share of Organic Carrots
TOM: So what percent of your carrots are organic versus more traditional?
LOGAN: I don’t know that at scale. I would say it resembles the market share, which is about 25%, but I don’t know.
TOM: So the market share, overall, in carrots is about 25% organic? Wow. That’s pretty impressive.
LOGAN: It is.
TOM: How has that worked over the years?
LOGAN: I’m not sure when or how the baby organic carrots started on the processing side. But if you look at other commodities — other vege commodities, even potatoes, onions, those other things — they are much less. They’re half that, if that. Being able to be consistent, being 52 weeks in the year, providing quality has allowed our customers to have confidence in the product and push it, as well. So it’s been a co-evolution together to make sure that’s been able to be done. So that’s what puts carrots ahead of everything else. It’s the consistency that Grimmway has been able to produce.
TOM: So, when you’re raising on those same acres, then, you’re following up with other organic products, right?
LOGAN: Mostly because carrots are the bigger commodity. I wouldn’t say we have the vege to completely fill up all of those acres on rotation. So we use cover crops and things like that to support it.
National Organic Standards Board
TOM: So one of the other jobs that you have, I understand, is that you also serve on the National Organic Standards Board, correct?
LOGAN: I do. So that’s been since January of this year.
TOM: You’re new to the board, so tell us about the board and, first off, why was it set up? What’s the purpose and mission of it? Then, what do you do on the board?
LOGAN: Okay. So the board has 15 members. It’s voluntary. We all volunteer our time to devote to the program, to look at new products and to advise the NOP. We gather comments from the stakeholders. We talk to universities or researchers and try to get as much information about a product or about a system as we can, and we’re able to advise the NOP on legislation for the organic standards. So, again, 15 people. We have a five-year term, and it’s set up with producers, certifiers and farmers and also livestock. And I’m serving on the farmer’s seat. It’s been neat to see. Diversity is important with NOSB, and so we’re trying to get farmers from all over the country to represent. I’m the only one in the Southeast. To my knowledge, there was somebody prior to me that was in the Southeast. But like I said, Southeast is very different. Being able to provide that, the climate is very different, with a lot of rain and things like that. In the sandy soils, we can’t just put preprint fertilizer and rock and roll with it for the rest of the season. So it definitely is important to have that representation there. And everybody on the board is how they treat everybody, like they’re just grateful to have that other insight. So we go through products that have been on the list, and they have to be reviewed every five years. So we just make sure that they need to be on there, that they stay on there if they need to be on there. But it’s all gathered information from stakeholders, and we’re there to represent the organic community.
TOM: Okay, so people might question whether something should be on the list or they want to put something new on the list. As a board member, then, you make recommendations. That is carried to NOP: National Organic Program?
LOGAN: That’s correct.
TOM: You’re not necessarily a regulatory body, but more of an advisory. Is that fair to say?
LOGAN: Sure. It is an advisory. However, the NOP can’t necessarily make legislation without the NOSB’s recommendation.
Subcommittees of the NOSB
TOM: Okay, so you have a strong part in the recommendation process, right? What’s your time commitment to the board? I’ve heard that it is a real commitment when you say, ‘Yes, I’m on for five years.’ It’s kind of a major commitment. I really want people to understand that this isn’t like 10 minutes a week or something like that. There’s a real commitment from your time frame.
LOGAN: Again, new on the board. However, we’ve been on it for about six months now. You have two meetings per year, a spring meeting and a fall meeting. Those take up most of the week of that date. And that is where we all get together, and we make the votes on all the work that the subcommittees have been working on all year. So, in between that fall and that spring meeting, we meet with our subcommittees and discuss every single product that’s on the list, that we’ve got to go through our work agendas. And we’re assigned certain materials. We even-out the work. We’ve got to go through reports, technical reports. We’ve got to go through previous work done on these materials. Then we have to outreach to our stakeholders. We have to outreach to researchers and try to dig and, really, just make the best decision that we can. You can devote — some weeks, if you have an easy one — you can devote a couple hours a week. Then, sometimes, if it’s difficult, you’ve got to do 20 hours a week, too. It really ranges. We try to ‘divvy’ up that workload to where we get an easy and a hard material. Unfortunately, some of our more veteran folks get the really ‘difficult,’ just because it takes skill to be able to get that done and know how to work those through. Ammonia extracts, for example, are with our chairman, and so it’s things like that. It’s definitely tough to work through some of those that are really controversial.
TOM: So you have subcommittees that you serve on and maybe you specialize in, in your primary interest, right? So, then, you dig into those issues and let, then, the other subcommittees deal with their issues?
LOGAN: That’s correct.
TOM: Okay, and so, then, there’s a part of it where you’re kind of operating as a team on these biannual meetings twice a year. But, then, there must be a lot of independent work, where you’re really kind of searching out research and talking to people about some of these products and how they might fit into organics. Is that fair to say?
LOGAN: Correct. Yes, it is.
TOM: That’s probably the primary part of the job, or, at least, the one that takes maybe the most time?
LOGAN: Yes. Yes, it is.
TOM: Okay. All right. So you’ve been on six months, and you’ve got four-and-a-half years to go. So thank you for your service to organics.
LOGAN: Thank you.
TOM: How long has the board been around? How long has it been in existence?
LOGAN: I want to say since the 90s, but I don’t know the date. No, sir.
TOM: So you’re on the board, and then you’re also on Grimmway Farms. Are there other hats that you wear in the organic world?
LOGAN: Yes, actually. Prior to Grimmway Farms, I’ve been on the Florida Organic Growers board. I’ve been on that for five years, I think. Four to five years. So working with a small team there, with Florida Organic Growers, and that’s been great to work with a smaller team. We’ve gotten really close over the last few years.
Future of Grimmway Farms
TOM: So talk a little bit about the future of Grimmway Farms, your full-time job, and where you are with organic production. Is it something that they want to continue to grow in the marketplace? Or do they kind of feel like they’ve reached a plateau of where they’re at? What’s the projection?
LOGAN: Well, organics is here to stay with that program, or with this company. And yes, they’re going to grow in those markets, in those sectors, as much as they can and as fast as they can, as the customers will open up and say, ‘We need more. We need more supply.’ Then, we’re going to provide it. So it’s up to the consumer, how much they want to go into it. As far as the trends, is it increasing? COVID was a really interesting data year. Everything increased during that year, as far as in produce or retail. We noticed that there was definitely a drop-off in 2021. So what the trend is and how strong it is, I think, in some years, it’s pushing ahead. In some years, it plateaus a little bit. So we’re just going to go with that flow and provide what the customers say. But in our opinion, if 25% or whatever is potential market share for carrots, why not for the other ones? So we’re just going to keep making sure that we can provide year-round supply with good quality and that people have confidence in it and that they want to make that move. We’ll be ready. We want to be in the position to be ready to take that up if the demand will be there. So Grimmway is making sure that they’ve always played a safe ground to try to stay ahead, and so going to the Southeast is one of those avenues. Logistically, it provides them an advantage or takes some pressure off of, at least, the California production window that is always facing the water issues and those sorts of the regulations there. So going to the east coast is important as far as the long-term outlook. And, potentially, that could be in the Northeast. Although no plans are set, it’s just opening that Grimmway can move, or they can at least expand to other production areas if needed, if that’s what our customers need.
Challenges in Organic Farming
TOM: Some of the changes in our climate, has it impacted your operations from California to Florida? Are you seeing kind of making changes, either strategic changes or management changes, to deal with some of the impacts of climate change?
LOGAN: Well, I’ve only been in for a few years, so you’ll have to forgive me for that. In my opinion, I remember working in the watermelon fields, and it was really dang hot. We had the coldest winter this year. To me, every year seems to be a little bit different. Whether it’s a little warmer or a little hotter, that’s just the variability within the years. Trying to find the most consistent production windows for us is important in the Southeast. I guess, when I think about the climate and it changing, it’s really just trying to nail down, ‘What can I count on? Can I count on anything being consistent?’ Whether it’s an effect from climate change or not, the water seems to be more of a population deal. Or how water is allocated in California, definitely, whatever is causing that is what’s causing Grimmway’s need to look for future avenues, just staying ahead of the game, like I said. And so, yes, we’re always trying to stay on top of any environmental changes, any regulation changes. Anything coming at us that’s going to be an obstacle, we’re definitely trying to work with.
TOM: Do you think the growth of change is maybe more in the past or more in the future? As you look at change in agriculture — and, obviously, water plays a big part of it in a lot of places — do you anticipate that the impact on Grimmway will be kind of more challenging into the future? Or do you think that we’ve gotten over some of those challenges?
LOGAN: Yeah, no. I think challenges change, depending. They’re always going to be there, but they’ll be different. So, for example, labor, I think, is going to be a really increasing challenge, with the price of labor. Unfortunately, you have to look for automation. Sorry, I’m getting a tongue twister with that. Robots. You do have to, at least, entertain avenues of that sort when you have a labor crunch or you have issues getting labor in there. The prices just are getting really high, and we’re not really seeing that price increase on our side for us, as far as the customers aren’t necessarily needing to pay more for food. And I understand, and so it’s not reciprocated at least. So that’s a challenge. Profit margins are getting smaller, and all of our input costs being higher fuel everything else. I think those challenges fluctuate, just depending on circumstances. But I do think that labor will continue to be an issue, an ongoing issue.
TOM: How about the water quality issue? Is that something that you feel pretty comfortable with in the organic world, that you’re really helping out with? Or do you think that water quality across the board is going to continue to be an issue, Logan?
LOGAN: So, with organics, I definitely think that there’s a more mindful approach to what you add to the ground. So, if water quality issues are coming from too much fertilizer, or if they’re coming from other contaminants, as far as pesticides and things, organics are inherently going to reduce that problem. So, if that’s what water quality issues are coming from, then absolutely. If they’re coming from other things, organics doesn’t specifically mandate types of irrigation systems. So, if surface water is a problem, that’s going to take a structural change, things of that sort. But if it’s contaminants that people are concerned with, then that’s going to be helped with organics.
What Farmers Should Know
TOM: Well, Logan, I really appreciate you taking the time today to do an interview.
LOGAN: Yes, sir. Thank you for asking me to do it.
TOM: It’s been great to learn a little bit more about the National Organic Standards Board and, certainly, Grimmway Farm. But the final question I would have is that if you had two minutes alone with a farmer in a room, and you could convey something on Grimmway Farms, about your position with organics, what would you want that farmer, or even a consumer, to know about Grimmway Farms?
LOGAN: So that’s a great question. A lot of times, I would like to know where the farmer is because it is a different life everywhere else. But just to take a shot in the dark, a lot of farmers, especially conventional farmers, are more hesitant about the organic side. At least, some ultimately respect organics and say, ‘Wow, it’s really tough. I don’t know how you do it.’ Then, there are some that may think it is a threat, and it’s not. It’s just completely different, and that’s what I like. Why I’m in the organics is because my dad’s conventional. We are no competitors at all. We complement each other in the market. But one of the most convincing — or, at least, the neatest — thing that I have found in organics is that, for example, there is a difference. There is a change. You can change the ecosystem with it, the diversity of the soil, things like that. We grow carrots in north Florida, sandy soils with no nematicide in organics, and that’s completely unheard of and unthinkable on the conventional side. And we do that because we’ve never fumigated before, and we maintain a diversity in the soil that the root-knot nematode does not flourish in or cannot grow in and become a threat. Whereas, on the conventional side, I’ve seen fields, as an agronomist, where you had a misapplication of Telone, and you can’t sell it. We actually donated the carrots to the University of Georgia for a nematode trial. They’re just completely torn up. There absolutely is something to it, something different, and so it can work in certain areas and do really well. So that’s been, like I said, a convincing experience that I hold on to, that I know that it is changing something.
TOM: Well, Logan, I want to be respectful of your time. And I really appreciate you spending time with us this morning, again, to discuss both Grimmway Farms and the National Organic Standards Board. I know you put a lot of time into that. I think, as a listener, I really appreciate the effort that you’ve put into serving on that national board.
LOGAN: Yes, sir.
TOM: And to all the listeners, thanks for tuning in today to another episode of Organics Unpacked and join us next week for a new episode. We look forward to bringing you another topic that would be of interest to you. Thank you.
OUTRO: Thank you for listening to Organics Unpacked. If you enjoyed this episode, please consider subscribing and giving this show a five-star rating and review, so we can continue to help organic growers improve their operations.