I would love to inspire a movement to reunite the country as one. Having many different visitors to our farm each year always allows me the opportunity to connect with various people and personalities. For me, cranberry farming gives me the opportunity to make a connection. I hope that everyone reading this could go out and find a common connection with one person you normally would not. The amount of unity that could come from just everyone making one out-of-the-ordinary connection would make such an impact for our country.
For my series on strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sue and Alison Gilmore of the Gilmore Cranberry Company.
According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, 29% of principal operators of farms in the U.S. are women — up from just over 13% in 2012 — but women are still rarely seen as the face of American farming.
Sue is not only a descendant of the A.D. Makepeace family, one of the founding families of Ocean Spray, but she also owns and operates Gilmore Cranberry Company, which she established in 1979 with her beloved late husband. Her daughters, Alison and Abbie, grew up helping to care for the farm and cherish early childhood memories of frost nights with their mother and tasting the crisp cranberries on the farm during each harvest.
“As a family, we try to produce the best fruit possible, from the blossoms to growing it in the summer, to seeing the fruits of your labor during the harvest,” shared Sue. “It’s a livelihood and a lifestyle that we grew up with and there’s nothing else we’d rather be doing.”
Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Alison: Farming has always been the fabric of who I am and so it is something I care about deeply. Growing up with cranberry farming as such an integral part of my childhood, I always knew I wanted to return to the farm. Before returning, though, I wanted to pursue some other professional passions first.
Thankfully, my parents encouraged me to embark on this exploration, and kept open the option to return to the farm when the time was right. My parents always said, as they encouraged me and my sister to chase our dreams, “If you love the farm, you will come back to it.” And indeed, the farm came calling after several years on my journey, which included degrees and experience in marketing and environmental policy.
I was absolutely thrilled to return to the family farm, and eventually started serving on agricultural-related non-profit, governmental, and cooperative boards. With the diverse experiences in my background, one theme has remained constant: Striving to advance a sustainable planet and a sustainable food source fueled by sustainable practices.
I’m just one of 700 family farmers involved in the Ocean Spray cooperative. Each one of us has a different story to tell about how he or she found their calling in this agricultural way of life, however we all share a deep love of farming and sense of stewardship for the land we call home.
Sue: My husband and I raised our two children in the same way my parents raised me, and his parents raised him: Go chase your dreams and if you love the farm, you will come back.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Alison: It was rewarding and nearly surreal to appear on Sesame Street, a show I adored as a child, to educate children about where their food comes from. Any opportunity to make a positive impact for the world is my driving force. My farm is also a part of the Ocean Spray cooperative and I am a Board member of the cooperative, which gives me the opportunity to connect farms to families for a better life. As Ocean Spray turns 90 years young this year, it is meaningful for me to see all the new, health-focused innovation and sustainability efforts to create a healthier world full of healthier people.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Alison: Falling into a water-filled ditch! Literally! During harvest, a time when our bogs are flooded with water, we always advise our visitors to avoid the ditches, so they don’t fall in, yet somehow, I managed to fall right in myself during one of my first years back on the farm. This always reminds me that we all need to be sure we take our own advice. Practice what you preach!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Alison: Family. The hard work and dedication spanning generations of my family are the heart of our farm. My mother and father put in so much hard work to grow our business. They instilled in me guiding principles of integrity and determination, and I am raising my three daughters with the same dedication. Being able to look at how my parents managed to overcome difficult situations has made me both eternally optimistic and committed to always pushing forward. Family is also at the core of Ocean Spray. Family farms are the foundation of the cooperative. We believe in the heritage of our cooperative, of the 700 family farms that run generations deep. Through these family farms, our cooperative is able to provide a healthy fruit to other families’ tables worldwide.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Alison: The theme of our work today is innovation. At Ocean Spray, our innovation is dedicated to connecting farms to families for a better life. With new items like an herb tonic, skin-care gummy, and coffee-juice hybrid, we are focusing on providing options to people that have a benefit to them. On the farm, we are always driving innovation. Many times, we have needed to build our own technology for our cranberry farms, and the farming community comes together to create tools that work best for us. Farmers are innovators in the truest sense.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive? What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Sue: Invest in your people. If you trust your people, they will trust you. You need to let people do their jobs as best they can and allow them to make mistakes and learn from their mistakes. Let them lead. Let them be proud of their accomplishments. Give them the confidence to never give up. I think that on a team with a good leader, when the work is all said and done, that leader’s team looks around and says, “We did it together.” Create that environment.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Sue: It is never easy to fill someone’s shoes, so I never try. For me, the person I am grateful to for getting me to where I am today is my husband. He was my partner in life, love, and our business. When I lost my husband, I continued the business because Ben had laid down the ground work to create a thriving business that I could carry on for our family. My husband created this business to pass on to future generations, and now we are doing just that. He always was and will always be my person.
Alison: My mom and dad. They were modest, humble parents and incredible role models. They gave me the confidence to pursue the career path I wanted. In the face of tragedy of losing my father, I was in awe to see, and to now remember, the strength that my mother had. She did not miss one beat when it came to the family business. I am proud to be continuing the vision they both had. I am inspired. I look forward and keep going.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Alison: I have been able to bring education of agriculture and food to children through schools in our local communities. It brings me such joy to educate children on farming and actually bring the farm to the classroom. We bring materials regarding agriculture, sustainability, and nutrition to the students, including materials from Ocean Spray. For example, we have a cranberry bog in a cup! Children are able to learn about how food grows and makes its way to their table! And, Ocean Spray is able to bring sustainable practices to thousands of acres of farm land and healthy fruit to millions of families worldwide. I feel so fortunate to be able to affect communities on both a local and global scale.
What are your “7 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
Alison and Sue:
1. Lead by example
2. Learn from mistakes and learn from the past. There is no such thing as failing, only succeeding and learning.
4. Be true to yourself.
5. Stay humble.
6. Don’t ask the people that work with or for you to do anything that you wouldn’t do or haven’t done.
7. You have to remember where you came from to know where you are going.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Sue: I would love to inspire a movement to reunite the country as one. Having many different visitors to our farm each year always allows me the opportunity to connect with various people and personalities. For me, cranberry farming gives me the opportunity to make a connection. I hope that everyone reading this could go out and find a common connection with one person you normally would not. The amount of unity that could come from just everyone making one out-of-the-ordinary connection would make such an impact for our country.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Alison: “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” I grew up learning to never give up, and I teach my daughters the same lesson. One of my daughters recently ran for student council in the fourth grade. She was influenced by seeing Representative Joe Kennedy; she built up the courage, and she entered the race. She lost. And guess what? She ran again the next year and she won! I am proud to see her not give up, to get her voice out there, and to be passionate in everything she does.
Sue: I love the quote Alison shared. It is a family quote that I always told her and now she always shares with her three daughters, my granddaughters. As I think back myself on our business and how I grew it with my husband for our family, a Warren Buffet quote comes to mind: “Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.” It reminds me that everything we do each day is for our future generation, and to keep driving forward.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Alison and Sue: Ellen DeGeneres. Ellen has the courage to discuss topics that many of us are often too embarrassed to say, and her authenticity, generosity, and sense of humor resonate with so many different people. We believe she is a strong role model for millions of people around the world, showing that you can speak your mind and make an impact by being true to yourself. Ellen’s generosity to people in need, commitment to education, and eternal optimism are characteristics that unify people, and it would be wonderful to spend time with her and hope some of it rubs off!