Farm Family Friday: ‘Orange’ you glad this family still farms?
For this week’s Farm Family Friday, we head to California’s Central Valley to meet the Gillette Family. The family’s history of growing oranges dates back to the late 1800s—and it is incredible to see their passion for citrus is still strong.
When you have grown up surrounded by orange trees and enjoyed the juiciness of oranges your whole life, you might think that the novelty would wear off. However, for the citrus farmers at Gillette Citrus, the love for their classic fruit remains as strong as ever.
“I eat so many oranges all day long, but then at night, I still have to have a bowl of oranges,” said Mark Gillette, co-owner of Gillette Citrus, which is a member of the Sunkist Cooperative and has operated in California’s Central Valley since the late 1800s.
For the Gillette family, growing and packing citrus fruits is not just a business—it’s a deeply rooted tradition that spans generations. Gillette co-owns Gillette Citrus with his brother Jay, but they are not the only family members involved in this fruit operation. Mark’s children, Greg Gillette and Melissa Burchett, as well as his son-in-law, Kevin Burchett, all work together to keep the family business going and growing.
“They grew up just like I did out in the orange groves,” Mark said. “None of us have neighbors. We live in the groves, but to be able to take that, and make a business out of it, and do that for five generations...it’s pretty exciting.”
The journey of cultivating and harvesting oranges is far from simple. Harvesting these groves typically begins in October and lasts all the way through June of the following year. The citrus trees can produce as many as 600 oranges per tree and are individually clipped by hand.
“Every piece of fruit is picked by hand,” explained Mark’s daughter, Melissa. “You actually have to clip it. You can’t just pull it off. Otherwise, it’ll pull the stem and it could create mold.”
This dedication to quality continues as the oranges arrive at the packing facilities. Once harvested, the fruits are washed and waxed to retain their moisture and freshness. Then, a specialized grading machine captures 20 images of each piece of fruit, enabling further meticulous sorting by workers before being packaged and making their way to market. The oranges sourced from Gillette’s groves eventually find their way to supermarkets and markets across the United States and Asia, bridging distances and connecting people to the essence of the land.
“This is a labor of love for everybody—from the grower to the crews that go into the groves—we all live here,” Melissa said when asked about the process. “We live with tractors going around us, and we watch the trees grow. We’re a part of it. Everybody’s involved in agriculture in our area, in the San Joaquin Valley.”
Beyond the taste and nutrition, when you enjoy an orange, you also support the communities that nurture these fruits.
“We’ve seen an increase now in navel consumption because, I think, people have realized they kind of missed eating oranges.,” Mark said. “There’s so many other fruits and varieties that have come from all over the world, it’s gotten diluted. I think people realize just how good a flavor it is.”