Fourth-generation California farmer Steve Gill is one of many innovators in western agriculture whose creative, forward-thinking mind improves farm efficiency and sustainability.

Brothers Steve and David Gill co-own Gills Onions LLC based in Oxnard. The farming side of the 17,000-acre operation includes vegetable production in Ventura, Monterey, Fresno, and Imperial counties.

Of the total acreage, red, yellow, and sweet onions are grown on about 3,000 acres which makes Gills Onions one of the largest onion growers in the U.S.

The company’s 14-acre fresh cut onion processing facility in Oxnard cuts, slices, and dices about 70,000 tons of onions annually; one of the largest operations worldwide.

This fall, Steve Gill – the farmer - admitted he misses the days of getting his hands dirty in the soil. Yet Gill – the innovator - is excited to undertake new challenges and hand-craft solutions to improve the company’s production efficiency while achieving improved sustainability.

“I enjoy a good challenge,” Gill said with a smile.

Energy is a major component of input costs and creating solutions to maximize energy use are crucial to Gills Onions’ future.

This summer, the Gill family installed the world’s largest vanadium flow battery which stores electricity. The tennis court-sized battery, located adjacent to the onion processing plant, was developed by Prudent Energy.

Here is how it works. Gills Onions draws electricity off the local power grid at night when electricity from Southern California Edison is at off-peak (lower) pricing - about 9 cents per kilowatt hour. The electricity is stored in the flow battery.

The 24-hour-a-day processing plant draws electricity as needed from the battery versus buying more expensive electricity at on-peak daytime prices, which Gill estimates at about 20-cents plus per kilowatt hour.

Prudent’s vanadium battery is unlike batteries of the past. For example, older cell phone batteries lost charging ability and developed a memory which prevented a full charge. The vanadium battery allows the 100 percent discharge of electricity for almost an unlimited number of times without damage.

An energy first

In another energy first, Gill is the brainchild of the advanced energy recovery system (AERS) implemented at Gills Onions in 2009. The system converts the unusable portion of the fresh-cut onion into renewable energy and cattle feed. The process reduces greenhouse gas emissions and saves electricity.

“We have an ambitious goal to achieve zero waste at our processing facility,” Gill said.

“With the AERS project, we now divert 100 percent of the onion waste which has helped us work towards reaching the goal. As of Jan. 1 of this year, we reached an overall diversion rate of 99.6 percent at the processing level,” said Gill.

The AERS system extracts juice from the onion peels which is then treated in a high-rate anaerobic reactor with bacteria. The process produces methane-rich biogas which can power two, 300-kilowatt fuel cells which is 100 percent of the base load of electricity.

This is equivalent to powering 460 homes annually.

Gill estimates the annual electricity savings from AERS at about $700,000 annually, or about 30 percent of the plant’s electricity costs.

Previously, onion waste was hauled back to the farm and incorporated into soil; an expensive process involving labor, farm equipment, and fuel.

Another energy-saving project at Gills is the purchase of lighter trucks which allow the trucks to carry a 6,000-pound larger payload. This eliminates 500 truckloads annually at a cost savings per load of about $1,000. Due to the efficiency, the truck fleet was reduced from 19 to 16 trucks. The total annual savings generated by the truck savings is about $500,000.

Another method of energy efficiency is the move to all diesel fueled equipment. Farm tractors and trucks already use diesel, but forklifts at the onion processing facility are propane powered. The company plans to install an on-premise diesel fueling station. All equipment will be diesel powered.

Water conservation is another effort underway at Gills. The company has undertaken a water study through a grant from the California Energy Commission to study ways to recycle water from its wastewater treatment plant for use in cooling towers, bin washes, and anaerobic digestion processes.

In another water-savings move, Gills Onions switched from conventional irrigation methods in onion production to surface drip. The change reduced water consumption by about one-acre-foot per acre.