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The Many Layers of Sustainability

December 03, 2013

By: Darden Restaurants,

The Many Layers of Sustainability

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Can you start by telling us a little about Rio Farms & Gills Onions?

Rio Farms is the growing side of the business started by David and Steven Gill along with their father, Allen Gill, back in 1978. They started with less than 500 acres in King City and Oxnard, growing a few commodities like celery, broccoli and cauliflower. Today, we are the ninth largest vegetable grower in the west (according to Vegetable Grower Magazine) with more than 17,000 acres of row crops, now including spinach, lettuce, romaine, celery, broccoli, cauliflower, onions, peppers, tomatoes and many more.

Gills Onions is the processing side of the business, established in 1983 with just 14 employees. Here we wash, skin, slice, dice and deliver our fresh onions. Today, we have more than 400 employees and have become one of the nation’s largest onion processors, supplying product to food service, retail and commercial customers nationwide. Being both farmer and distributor makes us unique to the industry -- we control the product at every level of our operation, from seed to packaging! To learn more about the company, view this video.

What types of products do you supply to Darden?

We proudly provide Darden restaurants with whole and diced onions, a staple in any chef's cupboard, for almost all of your restaurants. One hundred percent of our onion operation is California-grown and processed.

Does Gills have environmental goals or targets?

We have adopted ambitious and meaningful goals to continuously improve our environmental profile. Since 2012, we divert 99.6% of our waste, all while generating 100% of our base load electricity from onion waste. Over the years, we have also donated more than 1,000 acres of highly productive farmland to the Monterey County Agriculture and Historical Land Conservancy, the Ag Land Trust, and the California Department of Conservation to protect the land from development.

What is Gills doing to reduce water use, a major concern in California?

We have converted 99% of our conventional irrigation methods for growing onions to drip irrigation, conserving enough water to meet the annual needs of 2,400 homes in California. We also increased our row size from 40" beds to 80" beds, thereby increasing our yields and using less land, less water and fewer inputs as a result.

Gills opened a waste-to-energy system at your processing facility in Oxnard. Can you share more?

Absolutely! In 2009, we commissioned the award-winning waste-to-energy facility.  Gills Onions processes up to one million pounds of onions on a daily basis. During that process, we lose up to 1/3 of each onion once we remove the tops, tails and a few layers.  This amounts to anywhere between 200,000 and 300,000 pounds of onion waste daily.

By partnering with HDR Engineering, we created an advanced energy recovery system at our Oxnard, California, processing facility. We extract more than 30,000 gallons of onion juice from the waste daily. The remaining "onion cake" is used for cattle feed, almost 20 tons per day, while the juice becomes the fuel for the anaerobic digester to generate electricity. This waste supplies up to 100% of the base load electricity needed to power our processing facility. You can learn more about this facility in this video.

I understand the energy savings extend beyond this system. What else is Gills up to?

In 2012, we added an energy storage system in the form of a vanadium redox battery. This type of battery allows us to store electricity during the night when the electricity rates and demand are at their lowest, reducing our peak energy demand and optimizing the use of energy. It helps to stabilize the grid and lowers our electricity costs, all while producing no emissions.

Then, in 2013, we completed a lighting retrofit of interior and exterior lights to LED along with the installation of occupancy sensors and dimmable capabilities. This retrofit will save over 600,000 kWh of electricity, saving us more than $100,000 annually and paying back the investment in fewer than seven years.

Finally, let's talk about composting. Can you tell us how this process works?

We started the Rio Farms Composting Program in 2000 as a solution to dealing with onion waste generated at the packing shed. The program operates year-round and generated 20,000 tons of compost materials each year. What's great about composting is that it not only reduces waste, but improves the soil quality by adding organic matter to the soil. It also feeds and restores soil microbial populations and suppresses plant pathogens. We have also seen faster plant growth and increased crop yields!

Thanks Nikki for your time. We are proud to use products from Rio Farms and Gills Onions at our restaurants.

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