Gus Gunderson - April Grower Spotlight - Ventura County Agricultural Education
April 2014: Just the name “Gus Gunderson” evokes strength. Of Danish and Norwegian descent Gunderson means ‘battle’ and ‘warrior’. Perfect for the Director of Southern Farming Operations of Limoneira. He isthe farmer warrior doing battle every day out on 3,200 acres of lemon and avocado orchards. Responsible for 50 employees, 8 ranches, irrigation scheduling, weed and pest control, 250 distinct citrus blocks, scheduling of all inputs, harvesting and food safety Gus is a fierce warrior. Now I know why when I see Gus it’s usually in his white Chevy pickup as he flies by my field trips. Even with all those responsibilities Gus will make time to give a helping hand if he believes in the cause and outcome. Like most Limoneira employees he has been generous with his time and his farm knowledge when I ask him questions about agriculture. The quote that sticks out most in my mind from our interview is, “In the U.S. farmers represent less then 1% of the population, yet everyone relies on us for their food and fiber. It’s not just a happy garden, a lot of work is done here”. Exactly! Thank you Gus, Andy Coker, Gus’s right hand and Alex Teague, Gus’s boss and COO of Limoneira, “Who gives Gus a long leash”. Those three gentlemen are at the helm of growing all those delicious lemons. That’s what I convey and instill in every child that sets foot on Limoneira’s property. We all need to appreciate our hard working dedicated agricultural work force who make sure we have food on our table every day. Without them, let’s face it, where would we be? We are all hunters and gathers. Today, in the 21st century, most of us have other people growing our food and gathering it for us and we need to appreciate them.
I can’t believe I waited this long to interview Gus. I think subconsciously I was waiting until I became a better interviewer or had more knowledge of Limoneira, yet I was still nervous. To say I am fond of Limoneira is a big understatement. Five years ago I set out on a big mission to educate children about local Ventura County agriculture and farming. I will never forget being the new kid on the block, (even though I have lived in the county for 14 years) and not really knowing what farm in the county would be the most inspirational and appropriate for this endeavor. Like most generation X minded computer kids I googled it. When I searched ‘Ventura County’ and ‘farms’ Limoneira came up first. I called the CEO and I didn’t hear back right away. I have to admit I had no idea who I was contacting or that Limoneira had market cap of $325m. I just knew I wanted to give kids a reality based experience at a real working agricultural ranch and I wanted to speak with someone in charge. Someone suggested I call Gus too. I think it took a few more calls, but then I got an email with a few date suggestions. The rest is history. I just remember CEO Harold Edwards listening to my ideas about the program and then he said and I will never forget these words, “Mary, you came to the right place. Not only can you use Limoneira as your outdoor school farm venue, I will pay for every single school bus and I want to see a school bus outside my office window every single day.” I then remember my eyes widening and taking a big gulp. My first thought was “Holy cow what did I get myself into”? My next thought and more my style was “Wow, what incredible blind faith, trust and generosity. I’m going to prove to this man with the nice leather furniture I mean business.” Now 7,000 kids later I am proud to say I have never collaborated with a more gracious generous organization. Every time I step foot on their property I thank my lucky stars. Every person there is always generous with a positive attitude, smile and a wave; the lovely ladies and gentlemen in the packinghouse to the landscapers, harvesters, fork lift drivers, tractor trailer shippers, farm operations, tour guides and business executives – every single person. Gus is right about all the hard work being conducted, but Limoneira has created a culture where each and every employee does their job with gratitude and a smile. They love where they work. Happiness permeates through the place. I have to agree with their motto ~ Limoneira’s employee family is their most important asset.
Wallace Hardison of Union Oil and town founder Nathan Blanchard purchased 413 acres of land in 1893 and started Limoneira. Their original crops were lemons, oranges and walnuts. By the 1920s, the company expanded and became a leader in the California citrus industry. Today Limoneira owns approximately 11,000 acres and employees 274 full-time employees, 119 temporaries and 379 contract harvesters. It also conducts business with many independent partners and collaborators, including SEE AG, a little educational nonprofit with a big mission – helping kids understand the true origins of their food. After 5 years I know Limoneira truly understands the importance of good education.
One of my fondest memories about Gus as it relates to Ag education is when I was giving a classroom presentation in the early years of SEE AG’s program at a Ventura Unified School and a little boy raised his hand and proclaimed with excitement, “I know Farmer Gus Gunderson. He is my neighbor!” That 8 year old young man made such an incredibleimpression on me that I invited him to speak at a few local events. Rory and his parents are members of the Gus Fan Club and now he wants to be a farmer one day himself, like his buddy Gus. We need more smart young men like Rory to enter into the farming profession. I picture Rory as more of a politician, but if my program initiates Ag inspiration all the better. I can’t talk about Gus without talking about his lovely, vivacious and forthright wife, Helen. What a wonderful pair. Both grounded, strong and motivated. I had the pleasure of running into both of them before a recent gathering. They made me feel right at home. Helen said, “Walk in with us Mary”. The Gundersons are good people. Limoneira is lucky to have you and vice versa, as we all are. Thank you Limoneira for doing all the wonderful things you do for Ventura County, especially SEE AG and 7,000 kids. For more information go to Limoneira.
VIDEO AND PHOTOS BY JOHN PHANEUF at www.johnphaneuf.com
Thank you, John.