Sustainability So Good, It Brings Tears To Your Eyes

Oh, the onion.  It has been used as an ingredient in various dishes for thousands of years by countless cultures around the world.  Onion production is steadily increasing and is now the second most important horticultural crop after tomatoes.  Gills Onions is one of the country's top onion growers and distributors.  Starting off as a modest onion farm for a salsa company, Gills legacy has taken off, landing them as the poster child for sustainable agriculture.

In short, Gills Onions created a way to take juice from their onion peel waste and filter it into the biogas that powers their entire processing plant.  It now saves the farm an estimated $700,000 annually in electrical costs.  I know, it may be difficult to wrap one's head around this kind of technology.  And with our previous blog post about generating energy for your home off the grid,  we knew that this story needed to be told.  So on Tuesday, I spoke with the lovely Nikki Rodoni, the Sustainable Director at Gills Onions, to tell the story of how this company became the energy award-winning farm they are today.

How long have you been working for Gills Onions? It is your father’s farm, right?

"Okay, so just a little bit of history — I'll summarize.  I come from a farming family — my father and grandfather. They started a farm called 'Real Farms', in Monterey County, California in 1983.  They were growing produce for a salsa company and one day the salsa company asked if they could grow just onions and keep them fresh, instead of dehydrated. That’s how it started.  From there it grew to what we now know today as Gills Onions. We control the process at every level: seeds, growing, processing, packaging, and sorting.

I started with the company back in 2007. My background is in marketing with an agricultural emphasis. I began to hear the word 'sustainability' a lot from our customers and buyers.  And to be honest, I didn’t really know what that meant for our farm.  So I spoke with our processing facility managers, and owner's [David and Stephen] in regards to our sustainability efforts. It turned out that we were actually doing a good job in that department. We were and still are very active in community service, and were using a drip watering system.  So I thought, 'Great, we’re already making some sustainable efforts'.  But I knew we could build from there."

And that's when you began using the Adverse Recovery System — what exactly is that? 

"In Lamens terms, the whole idea stems from our production...we have a lot of onion waste!  We process about 1 million pounds of onion waste per day. So we were spending a lot of money on labor and diesel fuel hauling it.  We really needed a solution because we couldn’t just feed it to the cattle, and we couldn’t just compost it because frankly, there was way too much.  Steve Gill decided that we start looking for alternatives and so we began doing some testing at UC Davis.  We hired a project manager who got engineers, contractors, and spent a lot of time looking into digesters [a processor in which microorganisms are broken down into biodegradable material in the absence of oxygen, used for industrial or domestic purposes to manage waste and/or to release energy] over in Eurpore who eventually came up with the recovery system.

So, the onion waste comes out of a conveyer belt.  We then squeeze the juice, which turns out to be about 30,000 gallons of onion juice.  It then feeds the antarobic digester that creates biogas and CO2. But when you contain that kind of biogas you have to clean it up. So we filter it in two hydrogen fuel cells that are virtually emissions free. We do the clean-up through iron scrubbers and that creates a methane rich product.

We were able, through this process, to generate 600 kW of energy, which is about the same amount of power needed for our base-load. It was integral that we designed this to directly combat our energy costs and with that, we were able to run our entire operations on the onion waste alone.  For us, this is the best solution because it’s good for the environment and good for our bottom line.  Steve always says, 'I didn’t do it to win an award, but I did it to solve a problem'."

What elements of your efforts and success in your sustainable journey do you enjoy?

"I love having the opportunity to be the leader in the industry.  When it comes to agriculture, sustainability is very important.  And we as an agriculture industry haven’t been able to tell our story.  I think it’s important and inspiring for others to know how that works and what that process actually looks like.  It's nice to help people know the story — that really feels good.  Helping other farmers is also really crucial because they may not be able to; they're either working on the farm, or taking care of their business and don't always have the time to tell their story. I just really enjoy helping people become aware of what it means to be farmer."

Do you have any recommendations for other farmers, gardeners or sustainable-minded designers and individuals who have an idea or project?

"Every situation and every company is different. Gills Onions has been very generous, and it is what has made us successful — we love sharing ideas.  Farmers who harvest seasonally call us all the time, so you have to understand their energy usage and all the technologies that are available for every level of operations.  And it's always a great idea to look for help from a local University.  But it's also really important to do your homework before you invest. There’s so much information and resources out there.  And if you’re willing to share it’s a win win situation. Educating yourselves, your employees, and the community is huge!  Look for grants and other incentives that are available. The energy commission is always a good place to look.  Most importantly, you have to have the passion and the ability to think outside of the box."

Gills Onions has partnered with the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management, to benchmark their sustainability efforts and to further establish future direction for improvements and wide-spread education.  If you want to learn more about how you can take on sustainable practices for your agriculture company, or are just interested in their process, click here for their fact sheet and reference page.