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Sun Pacific: Chasing the Sun

Just ask anyone in our industry what they think Sun Pacific is synonymous with, and I wager many would respond with quality, flavor, innovation, and differentiation.

Sun Pacific, the company behind the iconic Cuties® empire, knows an incredible opportunity when it sees one. Strategically positioned to rock the market wherever it turns, Sun Pacific has made strides to expand and invest in a premium, ever-growing category: California table grapes. And, due to rapidly increasing demand, more organic Golden State table grapes at that.

Grape Grower Nathan Longcrier, Grape and Organic Crop Advisor Max Jehle, President of Sun Pacific Shippers Al Bates, and Vice President of Vines Melissa Heinrich, are leading the charge for Sun Pacific’s growth, and they join me to pull back the curtain to talk shop and strategy.

“Our Sun Pacific ownership has provided significant investments to the tune of over $35 million as we have redeveloped over 75 percent of the acres we farm. This season, 40 percent of our fruit will be available organically, covering a span of 16 varieties—three of those varieties are under proprietary licenses from Sun World® and include Autumn Crisp®, Scarlotta®, and Adora®. The grape industry has changed by leaps and bounds over the years—consumer tastes and retail demand have changed, and to stay at the front of the pack, so did our portfolio,” Nathan tells me, reflecting on the path the company has taken in the past 30 years.
Max Jehle inspecting the product
When Sun Pacific’s Founder and CEO, Berne Evans, purchased 72 acres of orange groves in the San Joaquin Valley in 1969, his vision to cultivate the fertile California land and create specialty crops that would delight customers across North America and beyond became a reality—a reality that allowed him to branch into the California grape deal just under two decades later.

“Berne’s pioneering spirit led to unprecedented innovation across multiple categories, resulting in some of the highest quality brands in the marketplace and the most state-of-the-art growing operations in the industry,” Nathan reflects. “We currently own 100 percent of the grapes we grow and pack, which are spread over 4,000 acres from Bakersfield to Reedley, California.”

 Following the sun and crossing multiple regions in California to ensure that weather and growing conditions work in its favor, Sun Pacific begins its program each year in Maricopa and Southern Bakersfield, then moves into North Bakersfield, Northeast Delano, Exeter, and then Reedley.

“These geographic locations allow us to minimize our weather risk and grow some later varieties that extend the season from July into December,” Nathan notes. “This is an important part of what we do as we build on top of an already sturdy foundation—anticipate the needs of the changing market and the retail landscape. The longer you can offer California table grapes, the more traffic you will find in produce departments.”

We currently own 100 percent of the grapes we grow and pack, which are spread over 4,000 acres from Bakersfield to Reedley, California.

—Nathan Longcrier, Grape Grower, Sun Pacific

While today’s Sun Pacific operations seem to exceed expectations, the roots, or rather the vines, of the Sun Pacific grape story began in the mid-80s with the purchase of the company’s first grape ranch in the location where the operation’s current Lerdo, California, facility is located. The plan? To enter into those programs where Sun Pacific could own the land and control all that is done on the ranch, ensuring a consistent, high-quality piece of fruit.

The Lerdo facility alone has contributed to the incredible growth of Sun Pacific’s California table grape program.

“Innovation is key, and keeping our finger on the pulse of retail demand allows us to turn on a dime,” Al replies when I ask him about the steps the team has taken in recent years to ensure product that is not only tailored to the marketplace, but elevating it. “Between 2017 and 2018, we have made significant investments in our packaging upgrades, with two Marco grape house packing lines in Lerdo, as well as additional racking, increasing storage by 150,000 boxes.”

Additionally, the company has introduced a Top Seal packing line providing Sun Pacific with state-of-the-art packing technology for grape clams. These investments in Lerdo provide the ability to shed-pack grape clams in an environment more conducive to controlling quality and consistency, Al adds.

If we are talking value, then Sun Pacific is locked and loaded. Other new investments include the addition of Bakersfield Racking and Ducor cold storage facilities, resulting in an additional storage of half a million boxes of late season grapes. And these changes are not just happening in grapes, but across its operations, with electronic grading improving the quality of Cuties and navels and the addition of a lemon line that allows for consolidation of shipping with Cuties in Maricopa.

“These new investments, technologies, and facilities are paying off for customers,” Al says. “Our controlled atmosphere rooms at Reedley are increasing shelf-life on an additional 1.5 million boxes of fruit, and the addition of high-tech ripening rooms are resulting in improved consistency for our Mighties® kiwi.”

Add in Near Infrared Sensors (NIR), and Sun Pacific executes the sorting of better tasting oranges for markets willing to pay premium.

Max Jehle, Nathan Longcrier, and Melissa Heinrich in the vineyard

The investments that Sun Pacific is making to ensure its strength at market extend even further past its technology and facilities—like with R&D in its powerhouse citrus program, grape varietal selection and development goals, as well as investments in organic opportunities, have been key to Sun Pacific’s research and response to retailers’ wants and needs.

“Our grape category has drastically changed over its lifetime as those demands and tastes we speak about have taken on new developments and priorities,” Melissa shares with me. “For example, many early varieties are no longer being grown. In 2014, we had 10 varieties that we were growing, and now, in 2018, that number has increased to an incredible 16-variety count, available in both conventional and organic offerings. Organics have been a huge opportunity for us to bring more value to the program and our retail partners. What was once a niche opportunity is now a demand.”

Our grape category has drastically changed over its lifetime as those demands and tastes we speak about have taken on new developments and priorities
— Melissa Heinrich, Vice President of Vines, Sun Pacific Shippers

Sun Pacific first introduced organics in 2017 and will have available almost two million boxes of organics to ship this season.

“In addition to our highly recognized Air Chief® label, we are currently exploring another label and brand for our grapes that we will market to children and adults alike,” Melissa adds. “This brand will leverage our Cuties and Mighties heritage and equity and tie all our programs together to create a message of quality, convenience, and consistency in the marketplace as well as to consumers. So, stay tuned!”

Vertically integrated, another one of those areas where Sun Pacific is continuing to make those strides in quality and consistency is through its utilization of the most current principles and practices of Integrated Pest Management (IPM). As the team tells me, many of these techniques have been developed by Sun Pacific Pest Management and Farming staff, in addition to university researchers. With an ecosystem-based approach, the IPM staff focuses on long-term prevention of pests and their  damage.

“These techniques include the management of biological control species—some are native and some are introduced through our augmentative release programs from our in-house insectary,” Max shares, further deepening the insights Sun Pacific brings to the table. “In addition, we also use habitat manipulation, modification of cultural practices, and resistant varieties. Our IPM staff continually monitors all blocks, and each block is a unique biological system, and different techniques are utilized to keep pests and diseases below established economic thresholds.”

A key focus that ties into Sun Pacific’s IPM program is the varietal selections process as Melissa noted earlier. When considering certain varieties, Mother Nature and today’s pest challenges have become a part of the conversation as well as their inherent susceptibility to pests and diseases. Variety selection has rapidly become more diversified over the last six years, Max adds, and Sun Pacific has had to be innovative and creative in developing pest management strategies that fit the current landscape of environmental regulations while developing a systems approach that complies with its philosophy of growing fruit with minimal inputs into the system.

Our IPM staff continually monitors all blocks and each block is a unique biological system and different techniques are utilized to keep pests and diseases below established economic thresholds.
— Max Jehle, Grape and Organic Crop Advisor, Sun Pacific

“When these systems are in balance, we can achieve these goals. One of the keys to this balance is building soil health through composting and mineral additions to increase the diversity of beneficial soil organisms,” Max says. “By increasing this diversity, plant uptake of essential nutrients and water is increased, which results in a plant that has greater tolerance to pest and disease pressure. This is also true for under and over applying plant nutrients, which is prevented through our plant soil and tissue testing programs.”

These principles have been evident with the growth of Sun Pacific’s organic program as well.

“I have worked in organic farming for 30 years, and we are still learning every day. With Sun Pacific’s large organic program, we have developed many techniques and procedures that we also apply to our conventional blocks,” Max says.

If there is one thing that keeps Sun Pacific continually on its toes, it is balancing conventional and organic growing practices—a feat that means that the team will never be bored. Growing organic table grapes can be very challenging at times, and understanding the daily changes in each block is imperative to achieving a successful harvest, the team notes.

But the challenge, or rather all challenges, are what make Sun Pacific’s story not only one to rival, but one that helps raise the bar for all. They make you better, sharpen your resolve, and lift the entire industry.

From where I am sitting, Sun Pacific is both riding that wave and guiding it.