“He even looks like a strawberry.” It is something you hear again and again when you ask Daren Gee’s friends, family and colleagues about his love for the fruit he has dedicated the last twenty years of his life to. They seem to imply that his passion for strawberries is actually turning him into one. Maybe it is. With his sunburned Irish complexion topped off by a bright green John Deere baseball cap, Daren does sort of resemble a strawberry.
When you love what you do, it shows. It can be seen in the meticulously maintained 500 acres that make up Daren’s strawberry business, DB Specialty Farms. It is obvious in the taste of the five varieties of berries Daren grows that are consistently rated the top quality in the entire industry. It is demonstrated amongst the farm’s test plots, where University scientists work with Daren to research new plant varieties, pesticides and fertilizers. It can be heard by talking to Daren’s employees, who say they feel appreciated and trusted by a man who shares his rewards with them and knows they are great contributors to his success.
But it is most apparent by the sparkle in Daren’s eyes when he talks abut his life’s passion. In fact, at social gatherings, if you mention the word ‘strawberry’ to her husband you had better have a seat. He has a lot to say on the subject.
When asked to name the factors that have contributed to his current success as one of the largest strawberry farmers in California, Daren starts by recalling his college days. He attended Fresno State University on a football scholarship and was studying to be a forest ranger. After participating in a cotton project during his junior and senior years, he found he had a greater interest in agriculture. He graduated in 1973, and after a brief and somewhat miserable year farming cotton, he spent the next eleven years selling agriculture chemicals as a pest control advisor. During this time, he learned a great deal about which agents were most effective and more importantly, he learned to sell. “It is imperative that a farmer be able to sell people on an idea, a philosophy, a goal. You have to make sure everyone is on board.”
During his days selling ag chemicals, Daren began to observe the good business sense of one of his colleagues by the name of Brick Brighton. Brick excelled in his industry, but Daren also admired his reputation as an honest man, true to his word and very consistent.
Eventually, Daren decided to follow his dream to become a farmer, quit his sales job and took a pay cut to become an apprentice for a farmer in Oxnard, California named Chas Nakama. Nakama had been one of Daren’s clients and the two had become friends. Daren knew Nakama was the best strawberry farmer around and he admired his innovation in the industry. He was not afraid to take risks and he loved farming and understood it.
Years later, when Nakama sold off one of his fields, Daren found himself working a few months during the harvest season for the Jones Ranch. At the time, the Jones’ were known to have the highest quality packing and harvesting techniques and two of the most outstanding Field Supervisors, Willie and Sam. Although the time he spent employed for the Jones family was brief, the impact was far reaching. Even today, Daren designs his harvesting methods and quality control programs after the Jones’ model.
Later, Daren farmed for Saticoy Berry Farm and a man named Mike Ferro. Daren was impressed that Ferro “was motivated by the work and not the money” and also by his tremendous business sense. Ferro is known as an innovator and pioneer in farm accounting, redesigning business programs to be specifically used in the strawberry industry. Ferro also left a lasting mark on Daren because of his good name. While shopping at a local hardware store, Daren was surprised to find that Saticoy did not have an account. Short on cash he told the owner he worked for Mike Ferro and was impressed when he was instantly given credit. Ferro, it seemed, was someone people knew they could trust.
Armed with these cumulative experiences and lessons from these diverse mentors, Daren struck out on his own with the philosophy he had begun to develop. It has proven successful for him and he is eager to share his knowledge. First, he says, develop good people. Train them well then give them freedom and ownership. Ask them that they pass on what they have learned to their fellow employees. “If every person educates just one person – that is another hundred acres”, he says.
Second, utilize technology and keep current. “You have to dominate in research and development if you want to be the front runner in any industry.”
Third, when you spend money you will almost always get a good return. “That applies to tools, wages, equipment … everything. The cheapest day in farming is the day before you plant not the day after.” In other words, once you decide to invest in a field, be prepared to spend money.
Finally, and most importantly, be a good person. Honesty, hard work and respect will pay off in the long run more than anything else. Daren says his ultimate goal is “to be a good family man, wholesome, hard working and to love whatever I am doing.”
Clearly he does love what he is doing. He loves the outdoors, the creativity, the challenges Mother Nature gives him every day and he loves farming a commodity that is universally loved. “The best part”, he says, “is when someone tells me ‘these are the best strawberries I have ever eaten’. Now that is the real thrill!”