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Family business looks back on 121 years planted in area

“It makes it more memorable that it is an odd year,” say Shirley and James Gill, owners of the Roswell Seed Co. about their decision to celebrate the company’s 121st anniversary this Saturday. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

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In today’s world where merchandisers and brick-and-mortar businesses often have a difficult time keeping their doors open, James and Shirley Gill are ready to commemorate something significant — the 121st anniversary of their family business, the Roswell Seed Co.

“Everybody asks why we are celebrating our 121st. Why don’t you wait until the 125th?” noted James Gill, whose great-grandfather John B. Gill — an orchard man from Arkansas — started Roswell Seed and Produce in 1898. “I say because the square root is 11.”

“He’s an engineer, so that makes sense to him,” said Shirley, his wife of 37 years, a former teacher in Roswell and elsewhere who has been working alongside her husband for many decades. “It makes it more memorable that it is an odd year.”

The come-and-go celebration will occur Saturday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 115 S. Main St. There will be cake and donated pizza from Eli’s Bistro. A performance by Charlie’s Angels — a Roswell High School dance troupe that the business has supported for many years — also is planned as part of the day’s events.

Most of all, the anniversary is a chance to talk with the Gills and their five employees, many who have been with them for years. Erick Glover has worked with them for 39 years.

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“We have a great crew that works for us,” Shirley Gill said. “We have to give the kudos.”

The company not only has a retail operation, selling baby chicks, seeds, plants, fertilizer and gardening tools and supplies to the public. It also runs a wholesale operations to provide seeds and plants grown in their greenhouses to other retailers in New Mexico, provides bees to beekeepers here and in other states during periodic sales that this year will occur April 6, and has a seed cleaning operation that, according to them, functions as well as the “big guys.”

The seed cleaning allows farmers to bring seed that has been harvested; clean it of vegetation, weeds or other debris; and return clean seeds for future planting. James Gill said he can give alfalfa farmers back seed that is 99.9 percent clean. They also have cleaned chile, onion, carrots and other types of seeds.

The key to being in business, weathering the Great Depression, numerous wars and many other significant social and economic upheavals, can be attributed to a few different factors, according to Shirley Gill.

She says it has a lot to do with the four generations of “great minds for business” in the Gill family and James Gill’s agricultural engineering background (which helps keep their seven seed cleaning machines operating).

“The story they liked to tell about my great-grandfather was, like I said, his big thing was orchards. If you had 5 or 10 acres of, say, apple trees, he would walk through the orchard and he could estimate what the yield was and then he would offer you so many dollars and buy the whole crop,” said James Gill.

Gill began working for his family business as a 10-year-old who swept floors. After earning his undergraduate from New Mexico State University, he worked for eight years at a Hagerman feed mill that fed 18,000 cattle a day and rejoined the family business in 1979. Now he has added a master’s in business administration to his credentials.

“All these men knew how to modify business to survive because businesses change through the years,” said Shirley Gill.

Her husband agrees, saying that businesses have to adapt to changing consumer tastes. For example, he said, retail customers used to want to buy their products from large bins of seeds, fertilizer or pesticides, putting their selections in small, plain paper bags or plain containers. Now customers want individually, attractively packaged products.

The other key to success, of course, is providing excellent customer service.

“We are very strict about good customer service,” she said. “We want people to be happy. We want them to come back. We want them to tell other people about us because word-of-mouth is your best advertising.”

On the retail side, they say they carry brands and lines not found in the big box retailers. And they carry only seeds or plants that they know will do well in southeastern New Mexico. They and their employees also say they offer something even more valuable than unique products, knowledge and expertise on plant cultivation.

While the company has a website and a mail-order service, all transactions are still done in person, over the phone and by email. They also said they have never felt the need to venture beyond the one location.

Sadly, this will likely be the last generation of Gills to run Roswell Seed Co. They said that they don’t spend a lot of time thinking about their succession strategy, but they said their two daughters are involved in other career pursuits and live elsewhere. Gill’s brother has two sons, but none of the three have, up to this point, shown any interest in running the company.

For people visiting Saturday, it could be a chance, not only to talk with the Gills, but to visit a store that in some ways is also its own historical archives — through photos, oral narratives and articles — tell a rich story about Chaves County, Roswell, the business, the World Wars, military history, and the family that has grown in those environments.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.