Growers across the nation face tremendous challenges that include everything from drought to increasing production costs, government regulations and labor issues. For fourth-generation California farmers Steve and David Gill, challenges just go with the territory in farming and are taken in stride. Steve, 65, and his brother David, 64, are co-owners of Rio Farms based in King City, and Gills Onions in Oxnard. Among the top 10 western growers, they grow fresh market vegetables on approximately 20,000 acres and are representative of the large grower-processer segment of vegetable production so important to the U.S. food supply. While world trade, including food products, has steadily increased, the importance of a stable U.S. food supply is strongly recognized by growers and consumer organizations.
Rio Farms and Gills Onions have a history of strong focus on innovation and technology that ensures the producers continue to provide high quality fresh market produce, reduce production costs and contribute substantially to reducing their carbon footprint. Along with pioneering the technology to deliver the first peeled, sliced and diced fresh onions in the fresh market industry, the brothers launched a system to use onion processing waste to generate electricity, eliminating disposal costs and saving about $500,000 annually in power costs.
Rio Farms grows a wide variety of crops that include lettuce, spring mix, spinach, cauliflower, peppers, cabbage, cilantro, celery and onions. Products are packaged to meet customers’ needs in everything from 5-pound boxes to 1,400-pound bins. Steve and David are continuing a family farming operation started in California by their great-grandfather, who came to California from Canada and purchased farmland in the late 1800s. Both Steve and David grew up with the farming operations, and both earned crop science degrees at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo. They established Rio Farms in Ventura County in 1979 and now maintain diversified operations in not only Ventura but also Monterey, Fresno and Imperial counties.
The brothers founded Gills Onions in 1983 and pioneered a system to deliver the first peeled, sliced and diced onions and the first fresh-cut onions in the food processing industry. The company processes about 2 million pounds of onions weekly for industrial, food service, retail and consumer markets throughout the country. Gills Onions is the largest onion processor in the U.S. While meeting challenges is just part of day-to-day operations, innovation and technology play a major role in the successful operation and growth of the sister companies.
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Technology enhances conservation
Traditionally, farmers have contributed significantly to conservation efforts in their farming practices, and Gills Onions has taken that role a step further. Whether looking at new variety development, often in cooperation with the University of California-Davis, or looking for ways to cut production costs and enhance food safety and efficiency, and conserve resources, focusing on innovation and technology has been at the forefront of Rio Farms and Gills Onions. Development and implementation of technology has not only resulted in the companies leading the industry in delivering fresh market products, but also in contributing effectively to conservation efforts so needed to keep America’s food production strong and viable.
Sustainable models for growing and processing food emphasize avoiding waste disposal, thereby reducing disposal costs. It is particularly important in large operations where the savings easily result in hundreds of thousands of dollars and a large carbon footprint that can be greatly reduced. When the waste product can be turned into generating power, an added boost to cost reduction is provided. That’s exactly what Gills Onions is doing.
“There’s about a 35 percent waste factor in onion processing,” Steve said. In 2009 Gills Onions launched the Advanced Energy Recovery System (AERS) that uses onion juice extracted in processing to provide 100 percent of the base load of electricity at the plant. Gills Onions brought in HDR Engineering Inc.; Deaton & Associates, LLC; Calkins Electric Construction Company, Inc.; and Hartigan/Foley to design, coordinate and construct the system. Steve noted that the system enhances the sustainable practices of Gills Onions and at the same time uses the onion waste and provides substantial savings in waste disposal and in power costs. In addition to the onion juice powering generators to produce electricity, remaining onion pulp is processed into cattle feed sold to area cattle ranchers. The labor-intensive work of hauling the waste to farm fields is eliminated, reducing greenhouse gas emissions from trucks on California highways. The energy cost savings are significant in reducing production costs.
“We’re saving about $500,000 a year in power costs,” Steve said. The system received the Grand Conceptor Award from the American Council of Engineering Companies and the Golden State Award from the California chapter of that organization.
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Meeting industry challenges
David serves on the board of directors for Western Growers Association, an organization founded in 1926 that continues to work toward maintaining competitiveness and profitability for vegetable, fruit and tree nut growers in Arizona, California and Colorado. Numerous challenges exist to growers such as Rio Farms, and Western Growers works toward solutions. While a number of issues are of high priority, water interests are of major concern in light of the continuing drought and pressures from environmental organizations.
Wendy Fink-Weber, Western Growers senior communications director, noted that Western Growers is currently representing grower interests as a member of the California Proposition 1 Advisory Committee related to the water bond passed in 2014. Included within the $7.5 million bond issue is $2.7 million for water storage. Western Growers is advising growers on compliance measures for the state groundwater regulations also passed in 2014.
Water is increasingly becoming a worldwide concern, and the extended southwestern drought places it as the highest concern for southwestern growers who depend on irrigation to grow their crops. Irrigation water sources for Rio Farms vary by farm location and include Colorado River water and on-site deep wells. While Rio Farms uses furrow, overhead and drip irrigation, Steve sees an increased use of more efficient drip irrigation ahead in Rio Farms operations.
Increasing government regulations and labor shortages are major concerns for all growers. With about 1,000 employees, efficient management is essential in all aspects of operations. “We have really good people, and many have 20-plus years with us,” Steve said, citing employment stability as a major asset. While Steve and David are very involved in all aspects of operations, Steve noted the importance of the decision-making process. He said, “We allow our management people to make decisions.”
In addition to the major challenge that ongoing drought brings, other inclement weather challenges occur, along with crop pests and diseases. Production costs and government regulations also are continuing to increase. Coping with these challenges, though, is what farmers do, according to Steve. He said, “More and more, we just have to adapt. We’re continually looking at all the ways to cut production costs.”