A large “BOOM” echoes through the remote Salinas foothills in late October 1998. In the distance, there is a downed helicopter with a lone pilot, David Gill, crawling out of the wreckage. His body is nearly broken, but his spirit is more determined than ever.
Knowing that he is badly injured, Gill has to find help quickly. He limps for nearly half of a mile until he finds a house where he is able to use a telephone to call for assistance.
Gill nearly lost his life that day when the chopper crashed while practicing autorotation, an emergency landing procedure where the engine is shut off and the helicopter must land without power, but God had other plans. After being rushed to the hospital, Gill found out he had broken his neck in two places and damaged three vertebrae in his back. He spent a week in the hospital and three months in rehab. Despite the lingering thought of not being able to do some of his favorite activities such as working in the farm fields, golfing or mentoring local youth, he persevered and overcame the odds. Gill went on to win the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am just 14 months later while simultaneously helping shepherd seven agriculture ventures to success, demonstrating to millions the resiliency and determination that friends and colleagues in agriculture have long admired.
This may sound like a plot from a Hollywood movie, but in fact, it is the story of David Gill—a fighter, survivor, innovator, philanthropist, farmer and industry advocate.
“What turned out to be the worst point in my life quickly turned around to be my best,” said Gill. Though winning the Pro-Am is one of the most cherished moments in Gill’s life, his renewed sense of purpose after the accident is clearly higher on his list.
“I have always been respectful of people, but it wasn’t until the accident that I realized how important relationships and friendships are to your well-being,” said Gill. “I couldn’t be more appreciative of the many people who sent me letters and visited me at the hospital and at home. They kept me going and my spirits up. After coming back from a close call like the one I had, I’m even more committed to giving back to both the industry and community.”
Growing up on a farm in King City, agriculture had always been engrained in him. Gill and his brother, Steven, worked with their father in the field, and they both knew early on that they wanted to be farmers. “Like dad, we wanted to own our own ranch, run our own operation and be our own boss,” he said.
After high school, Gill planned on attending Hartnell College to play football while working on the family farm. However, his agriculture teacher at the time, Don Carroll, had a different path for him in mind. One day, Carroll put Gill and his classmate into his pickup truck and drove for 80 miles until they reached Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. “We met with the Dean of the College of Agriculture at the time and he said ‘if they are good enough for you, Don, they are good enough for me.’”
Gill graduated with a bachelor’s degree in crop science in 1973 and returned to King City to apply his Cal Poly knowledge to the field.
Gill started his ag endeavors early with Rio Farms in 1978, in partnership with his father and brother. Rio Farms launched with less than 500 acres in the King City and Oxnard areas, growing a few commodities such as celery, broccoli and cauliflower. Through the Gills’ diligent leadership, Rio Farms is now ranked as one of the top 10 vegetable growers in the West with approximately 15,000 acres of row crops including spinach, lettuce, romaine, celery, broccoli, cabbage cauliflower, onions, peppers and tomatoes.
Shortly after the Gills founded Rio Farms, one of their pepper customers reached out with a request that spurred a new venture. “La Victoria Foods needed onions for their salsas. The one hitch was they had to be peeled,” said Gill.
With their first customer on deck, Gill teamed with his brother to establish Gills Onions. They developed proprietary equipment and processes to deliver the first fresh cut onions to the market. Before then, the only way to wash, peel, slice and dice onions was laboriously by hand. The company has since grown to become one of the nation’s largest family-owned onion growers and now operates one of the largest, most innovative and sustainable fresh-cut onion processing plants in the world—handling every aspect of production from growing, harvesting, processing, packing and shipping freshly diced onion packages to retailers and manufactures.
Gills Onions continues to lead the industry in innovation and technology with its sustainable platform. In an effort to further provide high-quality fresh market produce, reduce production costs and substantially reduce their carbon footprint, the Gills developed a system that uses onion processing waste to generate electricity. To combat the 35 percent waste factor in onion processing, Gills Onions built an Advanced Energy Recovery System (AERS) in 2009 that converts juice from onion byproducts into electricity for the processing plant. The technology eliminates disposal costs and saves approximately $500,000 annually in power costs.
In his most recent conservation efforts, Gill went “off-grid” and installed a massive solar installation at Rio Farms last year. The system is expected to provide more than 1.76 million kilowatt hours of solar power annually, which is enough power to fuel 110 homes a year.
Gill’s sphere of influence in the produce industry reaches beyond Rio Farms and Gills Onions. His visionary leadership has also played an integral role in the success of Growers Express, True Leaf Farms–Church Brothers Farms, American Farms, G&H Farms and Mission Ranches, growing the capacity of each company to bring fresh produce to the state, nation and world—and he continues to inspire other industry giants.
“I first met David in 1971 when we were both playing intramural football at Cal Poly,” said Steve Barnard, president and CEO of Mission Produce Inc. and Gill’s longtime friend and colleague. “David is one of the most generous, successful and unassuming champions in our industry.”
Gill is now looking to impart his philosophy of perseverance, as well as his dedication to keeping America’s food production strong and viable, onto the next generation of leaders. “My biggest mentor was my dad. I remember watching him navigate through life in a calm, organized manner—always treating people right and going out of his way to make them feel special,” said Gill. “Any spare time he had, he would volunteer in the community. Volunteering is something our family did and continues to do.”
Gill currently serves as chairman of the board for the First Tee of Monterey County and is an avid supporter of King City Young Farmers, Boy Scouts of America and the Future Farmers of America.
“David is the most generous person I know,” said Jamie Strachan, CEO at Growers Express. “His sense of giving to kids, community and industry is matched only by his competitive will and his unrelenting talent for negotiation. These remarkable combinations make him a revolutionary force in our business.”
Gill has recently put in extra time with the First Tee of Monterey County, where he helps at-risk youth discover successful pathways in life, away from the typical violence or gang activity they are used to seeing in their communities. Through mentorship, he introduces children to the nine core values of the program that represent some of the many inherently-positive values connected with the game of golf: honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy and judgement.
“By interacting with fourth, fifth and sixth graders through fun activities such as golf and regularly practicing the nine values, I can expose them to positive experiences early and show them the different directions in life they can take,” said Gill.
Similarly, he also has a hand in guiding college students toward a fruitful career in agricultural or other vocational paths as the chair of the Hartnell College Ag Steering Committee. He is leading the charge in developing curriculum that cultivates students’ skills in everything from fabrication, welding and diesel mechanics to food safety, tractor maintenance and refrigeration technology so that when they graduate, they will have the training they need to excel in the workplace.
“The most importance piece of advice I give is that you can’t be afraid to make a mistake. Failure is something that happens, and if you want to succeed in farming or any other career you pursue, you need to take risks. I have had a number of failures, believe me; but the successes have outnumbered the failures,” said Gill.
To celebrate his achievements and service to the industry, Western Growers will honor him with the 2017 Award of Honor during the 92nd Annual Meeting on October 30, 2017, in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Award of Honor is Western Growers’ highest recognition of industry achievement and is given to individuals who have contributed extensively to the agricultural community.
“David’s compelling life story and incredible achievements are a testament to his commitment to agriculture,” said Tom Nassif, president and CEO of Western Growers. “His drive and perseverance is inspiring, and his impact will echo throughout the industry for years to come.”
Gill has been a strong advocate for the industry, routinely reaching out to Congress and the California Legislature on ag’s most pressing concerns such as labor, water and regulatory compliance issues.
He is deeply engaged in the industry and actively participates in leadership roles within the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California, California Farm Bureau Federation and Produce Marketing Association. Elected to Western Growers Board of Directors in 1991, and serving as chairman in 2001, Gill continually inspires his friends and colleagues to give back to the industry and community. He has triumphed over personal and professional hardships to become one of the agricultural industry’s most distinguished pioneers, and there is no one more deserving of the 2017 Award of Honor.
“I’ve seen the caliber of individuals who have received this award in the past, and I’m truly honored to be this year’s recipient. I’m the kind of person who keeps his head down and does what I feel is right—working hard, doing a good job and treating people with fairness and respect. I’m humbled by this honor, and it’s an incredible privilege,” remarked Gill.
The award will be presented during the Award of Honor Dinner Gala, where he will be revered by his peers, friends and family. To attend the ceremony, visit http://www.wgannualmeeting.com.