Strawberry delight: Farm yields sweet fruit and a sense of family
May/June 2010 California Country magazine
Story by Tracy Sellers
Photos by Paolo Vescia
The Gees emphasize the togetherness of family farming in Santa Maria.
Growing strawberries and running a family business is the culmination of a dream for Daren Gee, center, because he gets to spend every day around his favorite things: his berries and his brothers, Chip and Dale Gee.
"Find something you love to do and you'll never have to work a day in your life." While the words of this business philosophy belong to best-selling author and motivational speaker Harvey MacKay, they could very well have been written with a certain California strawberry farmer in mind.
"I think when you love what you do, it truly shows," said a smiling Daren Gee.
And loving what you do for a living does show with Gee. It can be seen in the meticulously maintained 680 acres that make up his business, DB Specialty Farms in Santa Maria. It is demonstrated in the farm's test plots, where University of California scientists work with him to research new plant varieties. And it can be heard as he talks about his employees, whom he clearly admires and appreciates for their contributions to his farm's success.
"Daren definitely has a special passion for farming," said his brother, Dale Gee, who has worked alongside him since 1995 and does all of the equipment maintenance. "We knew it since we were little kids. He'd tear the backyard up and replant everything. He absolutely loved plants."
Younger brother Chip Gee, who joined the family farming endeavor a couple of years ago and designs all of the farm equipment, echoes Dale's sentiment about Daren. "He just loves seeing things grow. It's in his blood," Chip said.
While his brothers recognized it early on, it took awhile for Daren Gee to realize his real passion in life. He went to California State University, Fresno, to become a forest ranger. While there, he dabbled in growing crops—from lettuce to cotton.
"It was just so exciting to grow something and see success," Gee said. "I just fell in love with planting something, harvesting it and seeing the fruits of my labor up close and personal."
After graduating, Gee got a little closer to the excitement of being a farmer—he spent the next 11 years as a pest control advisor, working with farmers to implement efficient pest control measures.
"I think in the end I learned more from them than they did from me," he said with a chuckle. "The first thing I learned was about technology and staying ahead of the game."
The second thing he learned: He wanted to follow the lead of one of his clients and grow strawberries.
"In my opinion, he was one of the best farmers around," said Gee. "And if I wanted to be the best, I wanted to learn from the best, and that meant learning about strawberries."
Daren Gee credits much of his success in farming to his workers, who tend to nearly 700 acres of strawberries in Santa Maria.
Gee decided to venture out on his own in the late 1990s and started by collaborating with UC Davis in research, experiments and trial plantings to determine what strawberries are best-suited to the Golden State. It's a relationship that continues today—Gee annually hosts "field days" at his farm where he invites growers, ranch managers, shippers, marketers and others to see test plots of strawberries and to discuss what's going on in the field.
"I think the state-of-the-art technology and research we have here in California really separates us from other places," he said.
From the Central Coast to the San Joaquin Valley and farther south to San Diego and Orange counties, California farmers including Gee produce nearly 90 percent of the nation's strawberries. Last year their collective 35,000 acres yielded about 175 million trays—enough to provide every U.S. household with 12 pints of fresh and frozen berries.
The coastal areas of California, such as Watsonville and Santa Maria, are some of the best places in the world to grow strawberries because the western ocean exposure combined with balmy Pacific winds insulate the fields from extreme temperatures. Add sandy soil, mild winters and cool, foggy nights, and you have the recipe for strawberry success.
There are more than 600 varieties of strawberries, but only a handful are commercially grown in California. Gee grows three varieties at his farm: the Ventana, the Diamante and the Albion. The farmer describes the Ventana as having a flavor that is ideal for both processing and the fresh market. He says the great-tasting Diamante, which was released by UC Davis in 1997, has lighter color inside than most other varieties. And Gee points to the Albion as his favorite. Also developed by UC Davis, the Albion became an instant hit upon its release in 2006—farmers like it because of its high yields and consumers like it because of its exceptionally sweet taste.
"It has that beautiful red color, probably one of the prettiest berries you'll see on the market," he added. "It also retains that color so we can ship it bright red and it will get to the consumer bright red, which is something that has eluded us for years."
Daren Gee, left, ships his strawberries across the United States and abroad, but his biggest fan base can be found at his small roadside stand, below, where he is a daily fixture.
Gee's berries have been shipped to Paris and Egypt, to name a few exotic locales, as well as across the state and to retailers including Wal-Mart, where he was a featured farmer in their "Buy California" program.
Despite his success, Gee still comes back to something else he learned from veteran farmers in his early days: Develop good people. This is especially important in strawberry farming, where workers must adhere to strict food-safety measures.
"People are everything. If you have great people, chances are you're going to have a great farm," he said.
With that philosophy always in mind, Gee encourages a sense of family and community at his farm, and every year on the Saturday before Mother's Day hosts an employee appreciation luncheon. Joined by friends and family members, Gee treats the workers to a fully catered barbecue lunch. It's just one way he and his family like to show gratitude.
"On a farm, it's a close-knit thing," said Chip Gee. "You can't be everywhere at every minute of the day, so you really depend on other people to pay attention to the farming. Creating bonds with your employees is really important."
Both of Daren Gee's brothers came to the farm after having jobs in different industries—and both say the lure of farming with their family was too strong to ignore.
Dale Gee said Daren has "always implemented a feeling of 'we're all in this together.' I can't think of any other people I'd rather spend my whole day with and then still want to hang out with after work than my brothers."
It may just be that bond between the owner, his family and his employees that has helped to make DB Specialty Farms one of California's largest individual growers of berries.
During the farm's peak harvest season—springtime—hundreds of customers stop each day at his roadside stand, alongside Highway 101 in Santa Maria, to pick up farm-fresh berries.
"It's small, but it's busy," Daren Gee said. "I always tell people, 'Get here early because by lunchtime we could be sold out.'"
Clearly, this is a true labor of love that brings Gee happiness.
"I just love when I see the berries come out of the field. They are all bright and uniform and my workers are smiling and my brothers are nearby," he said. "It just doesn't get better than that for me."
Tracy Sellers is a reporter for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or email@example.com.
Strawberries are grown as an annual crop in California. The plants are first grown in a nursery and then transplanted into the soil by farmers. Plants are replaced each year following the harvesting period. Nursery plants are planted in the fields in October or November for winter, spring and summer production throughout the state and in late July through September for fall production in Oxnard and Santa Maria.
California's 12-month growing season contributes to higher strawberry yields per acre than any other growing area. Other regions of the country have shorter production cycles, from an average of five months to as short as a few weeks.
All California strawberries are handpicked to ensure only the highest quality berries are harvested. Strawberry plants continually produce new fruit throughout their production cycle, and during peak season plants are harvested every three days.
Of all the California strawberries produced each year, approximately 75 percent are harvested for the fresh market, while the rest are frozen for the processed market. Fresh strawberries are rushed to coolers, where huge fans pull out the field heat, and then shipped within 24 hours on refrigerated trucks or air freighted to their final destination. Strawberries selected for processing are gently washed, sorted and frozen quickly to ensure the best flavor and appearance is retained. Berries are sliced, pureed or kept whole for freezing.
Source: California Strawberry Commission, www.calstrawberry.com
Make it a party!
Want a chance to celebrate strawberries? In California, the opportunities abound. Here are just a few of the strawberry festivals held each year in the Golden State, with their 2010 dates. And remember to plan ahead for next year, as festivals in places like Santa Maria and Carlsbad are typically held in April.
For strawberry recipes galore...
Strawberry salsa. Strawberry dumplings. Strawberry ceviche. Yum! There's no end to the great ways people are serving up strawberries. Find out for yourself by downloading the California Strawberry Commission's new iPhone app. You can easily access thousands of amazing sweet and savory recipes by linking to the 50-plus food bloggers, foodies, cooks and chefs behind these recipes.
For more information about Shari's Berries, visit www.berries.com.