March 20, 2024

The Farmer’s Bet that Bloomed

More than 60 years ago, third-generation farmer John J. Gless, owner of Gless Ranch, took a unique challenge. A friend and fellow Orange County farmer bet him $100, saying that it would be impossible for Gless to successfully cultivate citrus in the Woodcrest area of Riverside.

According to Gless, the acreage in Riverside was deemed unsuitable for farming by many because the land consisted primarily of decomposed granite. “Farmers weren’t interested in this land at that time,” he said. “But I knew that Metropolitan Water was bringing water to the area for those who were willing to invest in the line installation, and land in the area was available for a very reasonable price.”

Newly married and ready to venture out on his own, Gless developed a plan with the help of researchers at UC Riverside to make the soil viable for citrus. It was a huge gamble, but Gless and his wife Janet secured a loan and purchased their first 20 acres.

“We took the risk and planted the first grove in the Woodcrest area of Riverside in 1961,” he said. Gless himself embarked on the labor-intensive task of planting this first grove, which would come to be known as Number 1. The venture was challenging, but shortly thereafter, orange groves Number 2 and Number 3 followed. Needless to say, Gless ended up winning that $100 bet, which would have translated to a little more than $1,000 in current value.

Gless’s connection to citrus stretches back to 1907 when his grandfather, Juan Pedro Gless, tended to five acres of oranges, alongside his sheepherding duties, on the rangelands of El Toro in Orange County. Following in his father’s footsteps, John J. Gless’s father, John Pierre Gless, farmed 40 acres of Valencias and lemons before selling his land to developers in 1960.

“I was raised in a citrus grove in El Toro and had been farming alongside my dad through high school and college,” Gless said. It was the sale of his father’s ranch that prompted him to start a business of his own and scout locations in the Woodcrest area.

More than 60 years later, Gless Ranch farms nearly 10,000 acres across multiple regions in California, including Riverside, Coachella Valley and Kern County. Gless also farms the California Citrus State Historic Park and the orange trees lining scenic Victoria Avenue in Riverside.

“We grow oranges, lemons, grapefruit, tangerines, limes and avocados in Riverside, and oranges, lemons, grapefruit and tangerines in Kern County. In the Coachella Valley, in addition to citrus, we farm dates and raise citrus and avocado trees in a state-of-the-art nursery,” Gless said.

And then there’s the Gless Ranch Farmer’s Market in Riverside, which offers customers a diverse selection of fresh citrus, locally grown fruits and vegetables, local artisan foods and gifts, craft beer, wine and specialty items.

Gless credits his work ethic to his father and his success to his hard work and his dedicated family. His wife, all four children, and several grandchildren, have either contributed or are actively contributing to the farming and overall operation of Gless Ranch.

Like many farms in California, one of Gless Ranch’s biggest challenges has been water. Fortunately, his luck didn’t run dry last year. “Last year’s rain saved much of California’s farming as many were letting groves die because of the severe water shortage,” he said.

Despite the obstacles, Gless emphasized his profound appreciation for the joy and rewards of farming. “People ask me why I haven’t retired. I’m still at it because I enjoy it, and I love the challenge.”