If we zoom our mental camera, our eyes will adjust to see Steve Gill, the man who stands tall at the epicenter of Gill’s Onions. If we pull back the camera, we’ll soar over the onion grower’s operations, which covers miles of California’s growing regions.
It’s difficult, but not impossible, to come back down to Earth and see the scope of Steve’s vision for both his operation and the land itself.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let’s rewind the clock, shall we? Take a breath and settle into the founding of Gill’s Onions. Steve and David Gill, both farming brothers, both determined to bring high-quality and sustainably-grown onions to market, opened the operation in 1983. Alongside supply-side expertise, three core values guided the brothers’ goals: innovation, conservation, and sustainability.
It is the last value that I pause on as Steve, President and Owner; myself; and Megan Jacobsen, Vice President of Sales and Marketing, dial into the layers of this principle.
“Sustainability and regenerative ag have been a staple of Gill’s ever since our founding,” Steve tells me, already off and running as the conversation begins to unfold. “We worked for a long time to achieve zero waste at our facility. Soil health is our main focus now for regenerative ag because we want to cut down on the commercial fertilizers which were being used extensively since World War II. Now, we’ve got to go back and fix the soil to help get healthier crops. That’s what we’re doing with our onion program and some of our vegetable operations. We’re just gradually incorporating more soil health routines because we learned how to use these products.”
Utilizing drip irrigation, soil health, and a fertility program, Gill’s has cut down on nitrogen fertilizers by up to 50 percent. As we talk more, I realize the scope of this achievement.
The development of a program that reduces nitrogen and still produces a product known for its quality is nothing short of amazing.
“We have healthier plants which have less disease, less pests, and we get higher quality onions to allow us to have the 18-day shelf-life compared to our competition,” Steve notes. “Megan can speak to this better than me, but an attribute of our program is that our customers don’t have to worry about quality.”
Amen, echoes Megan, as we all share a laugh—low levels of complaints are always a plus when it comes to the high-volume world of national distribution to foodservice operators.
“You know, I met Steve through our passion for soil health,” Megan interjects, expounding upon why she wanted to focus on sustainability for this piece. “That’s really what brought me to Gill’s, because sustainability is at the core of our company.”
Our conversation steers toward a key aspect of Gill’s sustainability program: its anaerobic digester, which was brought on site in 2018.
“We used to haul hundreds and thousands of pounds a week to the field, and what we do now is shred all the product waste, extract the juice from it—which reduces our solid waste by 75 percent—and take that juice and put it into the anaerobic digester. That way we can create methane gas, which is then put into microturbines to generate electricity,” Steve explains.
“Sustainability and regenerative ag have been a staple of Gill’s ever since our founding.”
Steve Gill, President and Owner, Gill’s Onions
In that process of converting the waste to gas, the company sequesters over 30,000 tons of CO2 per year.
“Rather than the waste decomposing on its own in a field and releasing carbon and methane gas, we capture it all for energy,” Steve relates. “There are no emissions and the engines in the microturbines are extremely clean.”
Expected to be finalized at the end of 2021, the microturbines are but one of many examples of how committed the Gill’s operation is to sustainability.
I circle back and ask about the remaining 25 percent of solid waste, which Steve assures me is taken care of. That is processed into cattle feed for dairies in Bakersfield, California, bringing the company’s total waste conversion to 99.3 percent.
“Steve realized in the early 2000s that he had a waste problem,” Megan continues. “And with Steve being the visionary that he is, he saw a waste problem and found a solution when no one thought a solution existed.”
From the field to the processing facility, even to the truckloads leaving that facility, Steve is asking one vital question: How can Gill’s Onions be part of a sustainable solution?
“My first week on the job, our Head of Sustainability, Laura Hamman, told me, ‘If we’re ever 100-percent zero waste, then we’re missing the point,’” Megan exclaims. “Because the point of sustainability is that you’re always looking for new avenues and inroads to find new sustainable solutions.”
Steve points out that the attitude surrounding sustainability lends itself to Gill’s customers, as well.
“Customers want to have a story to tell about us, you know? The more unique we are, the better it is for them. And we differentiate ourselves from other onion suppliers because we’re so unique in what we do with our waste and how we handle it,” Steve says, pride making his words glow. “There are all kinds of business models, and I think I like mine the best.”
I can’t help but smile as he says this; it reminds me so much of my dad and his approach to business. If my father can do it himself, he’ll find a way to do just that.
“I didn’t want to be put in the position where I had to depend on another company to deal with our waste. Part of my business model is to take care of everything and not be dependent on anybody to help us,” Steve emphasizes.
It goes without saying that Steve is a salt-of-the-earth farmer, a man who implements the saying “actions speak louder than words” into everything he does.
“...we differentiate ourselves from other onion suppliers because we’re so unique in what we do with our waste and how we handle it.”
“Oh, yeah,” he agrees, as I put this statement out in front of him. “I’ve put my money where my mouth is.”
As a vertically integrated operation, Gill’s grows onions to get to the end consumer. Both Megan and Steve highlight the importance of this, as there’s a vested interest on their behalf to bring the best quality possible to market.
“Our onions are non-GMO. That’s a big deal,” Steve says, taking us down another lane of regenerative ag benefits. “With the reduction of pesticides and fungicides, we feel that our fertility program is on par with organic, although it’s not certified as organic. That’s the part of regenerative ag that I live by: finding the best way to grow crops and produce healthy, clean food.”
Where we get our produce matters. As we confront environmental issues and supply chain challenges, the industry needs a man in its corner to fight the good fight. Luckily, as the camera focuses again, we have Steve Gill.