Sean Gilbert age / 34
crops / Apples, cherries, apricots, peaches, nectarines and wine grapes
title / General manager
business / Gilbert Orchards
education / Pomona College

What’s been your greatest challenge?

I think the toughest years for me personally were the back-to-back years of 2008 and 2009. We went from having a really big crop in 2008, that had more quality issues, to having a really small crop in 2009, that was very good quality, but we didn’t have the volume. Both situations caught us off guard.

We ended up having to adjust our packing plans. It was tough on our warehouse team, yet we ended up getting a lot closer as a result of that. Sometimes when you’re in the middle of it, it’s hard to see that those challenges are actually going to help you out down the road. But, I know we are a better warehouse today because of those very tough years.

What’s the future of club varieties?

I think club varieties are here to stay, though the name might change from club to branded. What’s more important is not who’s in the club but how the consumer perceives it.

Consumers are indicating that they value brands of certain apples more than they do the commodity apples like a Red or a Golden Delicious, or a Granny Smith. I think the lesson for anybody that’s looking at planting those club varieties, or those brands, is you have to pick the right one. There’s some that have come and gone by now and some that’ll be here for another 50 years. Hopefully we will pick the right ones.

How important is diversification?

Probably three years ago I would have said that it’s important to have diversification, just because you don’t want all your eggs in one basket. But today, I need to be diversified because I need to have a labor pool that stays busy year-round.

When we have to lay off workers, because we are all done with thinning, or all done with training, or all done with pruning — we lose that labor source for awhile. And what we’ve found with apricots, cherries, peaches and nectarines, is that we are able to keep crews busy most of the year. That way, we have people that come back every year to work with us and stay with us.

What advice would you give the next generation of growers?

If I were them right now I’d be so excited to be looking at the fruit business. Not only is fresh produce an incredibly exciting field to get into, but I think it’s going to be changing so much in the next 20 years.

Now is going to be a great time to get exposed to it and be able to take advantage of the opportunities that are going to come from orchard renovations and a lot of retiring growers. The industry is changing so much I think it’s a huge opportunity for someone young with a fresh perspective to take advantage of.