Will pack company fruit, encourages farmers to join cooperative
“We have exciting plans for the future; we’ve updated the storage rooms and made some other improvements and you don’t do that if you don’t plan on staying in the community a long time. We’re replacing a number of pieces of equipment in the packing plant to deliver the high quality fruit they’ve come to expect from us.”
Johnny Gebbers, Gebbers Farms
OROVILLE — Members of Gebbers Farms assured business owners and community members gathered at Oroville’s April 13 Chamber of Commerce meeting they planned to be in Oroville for the long run.
“We have a lot of good growing areas in the north county and there are hard working people here, so why not keep this thing going?” said Cass Gebbers at the meeting, held at America’s Family Grill. “We have a lot of hope and belief in Oroville.”
“I want to make one thing clear. We did not buy Gold Digger; they filed Chapter Seven bankruptcy and we came in and kept things going,” said Welcome Sauer. “We bought some of the orchards, others bought some of the other orchards, and we bought the packing plant.”
Cass Gebbers pointed out Chelan Fruit Cooperative “came in and were very helpful finding homes for all those growers.”
“Chelan Fruit purchased the plant outside of town, and will receive cherries and apples there to take to Chelan to pack. They were very instrumental in keeping this whole thing going and they were very helpful to your town,” Cass Gebbers said.
Chelan Fresh is the marketing arm for Chelan Fruit and Gebbers Farms, and was the marketer for Gold Digger as well.
“We worked together with a number of parties to keep this thing going,” said Sauer. “As long as the fruit is going into the packing plants, those jobs will go on.”
Sauer said he and Greg Moser began working on the deal at the end of May, after Gold Digger “spent a dozen years working with their bank.”
“A few new regulations changed things and they had to file a Chapter Seven Bankruptcy in May. The job of the bankruptcy court was to sell the place, no questions asked,” said Sauer. “There were cherries and apples on trees so we said, ‘if we are going to keep this thing going, we better get going.’ Rather than have the bankruptcy court figure things out, we provided cash up front and kept the people working.”
Johnny Gebbers said that in the 11 years he has been working with his family, “I’ve never seen a deal come together so quickly.”
Sauer said just four days after taking over, Gebbers had the cherry harvest in process and were very grateful to have the employees in place.
“It was very gratifying to see people wanting to work hard. Between the company orchards we bought up here and the fruit we already had, we were able to fill the packing houses,” said Sauer, adding, “We are investing a lot here and fixing up the warehouses to keep things going.”
“We have exciting plans for the future; we’ve updated the storage rooms and made some other improvements and you don’t do that if you don’t plan on staying in the community a long time,” said Johnny Gebbers. “We’re replacing a number of pieces of equipment in the packing plant to deliver the high quality fruit they’ve come to expect from us.”
“You couldn’t ask for a better family to work with,” said Moser, introduced as Gebbers’ Northern Operator. “You are all very fortunate to have someone like this step in.”
Oroville High School junior and May Festival Princess Hannah McCoy was the first to speak up when the meeting was opened for questions.
“In the past, you have provided jobs for teenagers in the summers; will you still be doing that?” McCoy asked.
“Yes, school kids are a vital component of our labor force,” said Johnny Gebbers, explaining the minor work permit allowed for employment as young as age 16. “We definitely encourage the kids to come and apply. We need them and will at least double the labor force (from the rest of the season) in June and July to get the cherries.”
When Chamber President Clyde Andrews asked if independent farmers would be contracted, he was told Gebbers Farms would now pack company fruit only.
“So we encourage farmers to join the cooperative,” said Johnny Gebbers.
Andrews asked what other options there were for growers.
“Chelan Fruit. That is what they do well,” said Johnny Gebbers.
“Everything happened really quick, but it happened,” said Bob Grandy, introducing himself as someone involved in risk management and food safety for Gebbers Farms. “There are a lot of good people in this area that work here and when we started running cherries the workers had faith in us and they hung in there with us for this transition and now we are looking to the future. It’s more than just a job; in the farming industry you do it because you love it. Oroville is a great town and we are committing our assests to do a good job. We’re very excited about working with everyone.”
Jeff Bunnell asked about the future of the labor situation under the current presidential administration.
“Labor is always an issue,” said Sauer. “But we have a good, local established work force here that we can rely on.”
According to a timeline on the Gebbers website detailing history of the family tradition as well as the fruit industry in Okanogan County, Martha Gebbers built an apple warehouse in Brewster in 1941; recruiting the first Hispanic work force through a guest worker program to build and operate the warehouse and help run both the family’s cattle ranch and sawmill during the war years.