Many of the orchards in the Chelan valley are a family affair, with women playing a critical role in running smooth operations and growing the business. In our blog series “Women in Agriculture” we sit down with them to discuss their roles and thoughts on the industry.
This month we checked in with Reba Guzman with Gebbers Farms in Brewster, Washington.
CF: Hello, Reba; thank you for taking the time to chat with us! Why don’t you start with telling us what you do at Gebbers Farms today?
RG: Right now I am working with my cousin down at our sales office at Chelan Fresh. I help him with his West Coast business. I also work occasionally in the orchard office doing odd jobs, or helping where I can with other orchard duties.
CF: What other positions or job duties have you had with the company over the years?
RG: I grew up working every cherry harvest in the orchard. My cousins and I would mark the lot location of the fruit and keep a daily count of the bins picked. We also helped scan picker tickets because we pay the workers per bucket of cherries picked. We were fired on occasion for having our bin counts off, or for not watering the fruit well enough. One time a main water line broke and we quit working and played under the exploding broken pipe. We got fired until the loading dock got so busy our aunt and uncle couldn’t keep up. I like to say I was fired for 5 minutes!
After college my cousin Johnny hired me as a shipping clerk in our shipping office. During that time, Johnny also started a company development program and had me work at every single packing line we have. I started out on our pre-size line where we break down the fruit by size and grade. Pre-sizing allows for quicker, more efficient packing, especially for customers who can only take specific sizes and grades. I moved next to our commit-to-pack line. This was my first experience on the warehouse side of our company. I was fascinated by the technological advances. When I was younger there used to be hundreds of women on the packing lines. Now the whole line is run by about 75 people. These advances have cut back our labor costs and have drastically improved our packing abilities. We have infrared lights that take pictures of the fruit, allowing us to easily pack high-quality apple and cherries.
While in the development program, I had to learn how to do every single job involved in packing a box and worked with the mechanics as well. Let’s just say, I don’t have a mechanic’s brain! I also worked with accounting, learning the costs and returns to the grower, and had to pack and sort fruit. Packing and sorting fruit was one of the hardest jobs I have ever had. Not only was it my job to ensure that good fruit was going into a box, but I was also on my feet for 8 hours a day.
We were raised to treat our employees like family. Being able to work with them on a daily basis was such a joy. I have always respected how hard they work for us, and have the greatest appreciation for them. This program allowed me to learn so much more about our company. It was a wonderful experience, and something I still use every day.
I was later moved to one of our other warehouses, called Apple House, for 3 years. Here I worked in HR and production. I absolutely loved my time at Apple House. I loved working with all of the people, from the packers to the refrigeration managers. I like to tell people that I have 100 moms. The packers at Apple House truly became my family. I spent more time with them than I did with my own family. It is this kind of relationship that I think sets my family and our business apart from the others. Our employees truly are like family.
I was moved into the Chelan Fresh sales office 3 years ago where I help my cousin Daniel with his West Coast business, and I have a few customers of my own now. The sales office has been a very exciting and new learning experience. I have had the pleasure of traveling to the Dominican Republic and visiting our customer, R.H. Mejia. To see our fruit go from basically my backyard to a completely different country thousands of miles away, is a blessing unlike anything I have ever experienced. I have also been to Los Angeles on customer visits and store grand openings. Being able to talk to the consumer about our fruit, and where it comes from, is pretty awesome. Making the connection between the farmer and the consumer allows for a greater appreciation for the produce aisle. When you can tell a consumer, “That piece of fruit is my livelihood,” people’s perspective changes. They understand why prices are set where they are. They can see that there are real people working hard to create the best apple-eating experience they have ever had.
CF: I know the Gebbers family is quite large; tell us how you fit into the Gebbers family tree.
RG: My grandpa was an only child. And my grandma was the second oldest of 10. Grandpa wanted a big family so they had 5 children! My mom, Danna, was the oldest of the five. She was actually a nurse. She was the smart one in the family. Just kidding! Those 5 kids went on to have 20 grandchildren in total. I am number 12 of the 20.
CF: What was it like growing up inside of a family business?
RG: We all basically grew up at my grandma’s house, which we called “The Big House”. Our orchard office was also located at her house. So we played there every day after school while our parents worked. There were usually 12 or more of us all crowded on a tiny antique couch watching TV. My grandpa hated it when we weren’t’t outside doing something, so we usually ended up doing odd jobs around the orchards.
Growing up we were taught to work hard. My aunt used to take her babies and leave them in the orchard with a crew boss, and go about her daily business. I can remember being 5 or 6 years old riding on the D-8 when we were getting new pieces of land ready to plant. There was always a group of cousins with an aunt or an uncle riding around the orchards. We would get picked up from school and end up going out to check on the orchards and stop in the office, and wouldn’t get home until late evening to have a bowl of cereal for dinner. It was so much fun growing up with my cousins. We were raised more like siblings than cousins and I love that I get to work with them every day. What a privilege it is! Something I certainly won’t ever take for granted.
My house was right behind my grandma’s so there were a lot of evenings my mom would end up cooking dinner for 40 people. It was completely normal to have family dinner at the office. I don’t remember a summer not working in cherry harvest. In the fall after school and practice we would go to the office to help my grandma count apple bin tickets. I think I ate more popsicles than I actually worked. The thing about growing up in a family business is everybody works. There wasn’t one person who wasn’t working all of the time.
CF: And what is it like to work in a family business now as an adult?
RG: I would say as an adult I now have a better understanding of how our company works, what our goals are to grow an exceptional piece of fruit, how to work hard every day, and what it takes to ensure our customers are getting the most exceptional apple-eating experience possible. I, along with my cousins, carry the burdens of running a business. Sleepless nights are part of the job, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.
CF: I know you are a recent college graduate with a Marketing Business degree; do you hope to put your degree to work at Gebbers Farms someday?
RG: Yes, I have been able to put my degree to work really since I came home. Being in the sales office I would say I use my sales degree a little bit more. But regardless of what our college degrees were in, our family has been able to mold and teach us to work, and contribute the best way we can for the company.
CF: Why did you decide to return home to work in the family business after college?
RG: If I’m being honest my mom wanted me to be a traveling nurse. She was really pushing for that. But I told her my senior year of college that I wanted to work for the company in some capacity. My mom called me one day near the end of my senior year at Northwest Christian University and told me I was coming home to work for my cousin Johnny in the warehouse and for my Aunt Sonya however she needed me. I tried waffling around and contemplated working away from home but when I ran into my Uncle Mac in the parking lot of our office he told me I had a perfectly good opportunity here at the company. So that’s what I did!
CF: If you have children of your own someday, is it important to you that you raise them in the business like you were raised?
RG: Yes, I will absolutely raise my kids in the family business. They may choose completely different careers. Whatever they decide to become, they will know where they came from. I hope to teach them to love the Lord, to know how to work hard, and love what you do. Our company was started generations before us, and will go on for generations after us. We live and work in a beautiful area. We get to do what we love with the people that we love. You can’t ask for anything better.
CF: Do you have any thoughts or dreams on where the company will go in the future?
RG: I think that the future of Gebbers Farms is strong and will go on for many generations.
We have developed growing practices that allow us to grow exceptional fruit. Our packing lines are state of the art, and are improving with current technological advances. We are developing some of the best new apples, like the Sugarbee, Rockit, red flesh Lucy Rose and Lucy Glo. It is this kind of innovative thinking that will lead our company into the future.
The next generation is already working and learning how things are done, and they are going to be leaders and doers. My grandpa always said, “There’s always an idea guy in a group.” I think that the next generation is full of 42 bright-eyed “idea guys”! I’m excited to see where we go, and I thank the Lord every day for what He has blessed us with.