Oat milk is booming. Modesto plant will add workers to help meet demand for nondairy.

SunOpta is expanding the oat milk portion of its Modesto plant to meet growing demand for this dairy alternative. The company is hiring 10 people to go with the 157 already at the plant, executive Michael Buick said in a phone interview Friday. SunOpta also turns out almond, soy and coconut milks at the Mariposa Road site, along with broths and stocks. It is headquartered in Minnesota and has other plants making plant-based milks, fruit snacks, frozen fruit, sunflower snacks, tea and more. TOP VIDEOS WATCH MORE × Video: Better yet, here’s how to compost yard, food waste for a better garden “Oat milk is what is growing the fastest now,” said Buick, senior vice president and general manager, plant-based foods and beverages. “Oat milk has more than doubled in the last 52 weeks and doesn’t show any sign of slowing down.” SunOpta has operated since 2009 in the Beard Industrial District. It took over a portion of a fruit cannery that was once part of the vast Tri-Valley Growers cooperative, which went bankrupt in 2000.


Tech firm trying to solve problem of produce spoilage coming to Fresno

A food tech company fresh to the Central Valley is bringing a research center to Fresno, allowing the company to be closer to the crops its trying to preserve. Chicago-based Hazel Technologies announced its new West Coast research center after raising $70 million in a recent investment round.

Chief Technological Officer Adam Preslar anticipates opening in December. “Fresno has really been on the to-do list for a long time,” Preslar said. As they were discussing West Coast research center options, Fresno was top of the list, he said. “We wanted to be there, close to the core of our customers,” Preslar said. The main goal of the new facility is to provide customer and technical support for the clients of the Chicago-based company. They also wanted a spot where they can showcase what their product can do.

The company produces a small packet that reduces respiration rate and increases ethylene resistance in produce, which can triple the shelf life of fresh produce.



There’s a lot of good wine out there, but laying claim to a perfect wine is no easy feat. One Central Valley winemaker can do just that with a resounding performance at the Sunset Magazine International Wine Competition.

Madera-based Ficklin Vineyards and winemaker Peter Ficklin took Best of Class and Double Gold awards for the Old Vine Tinta Port. It’s Aged 10 Years Tawny Port received Gold and Aged 15 Years Tawny Port won Silver. “A 100-point wine is a benchmark wine,” says Alexander Peartree, of the Robb Report—a luxury lifestyle magazine. “It represents the pinnacle of the category…the reviewer looks for the intensity of flavor, balance, structure, and longevity.”

A total of 2,900 entries from all over the world were judged in the annual competition. “We are honored to have our Old Vine Tinta Port recognized as a perfect wine by the judges in Sunset’s International Competition, and so proud to be the only wine this year to receive that designation among so many esteemed wines”, said President and Winemaker Peter Ficklin. “Ficklin Vineyards was founded with a commitment to quality and a desire to produce the highest quality Port in the United States.”

Madera’s CRU Winery also took three Gold awards for its 2020 Unoaked Chardonnay, Sarmento Vineyard Pinot Noir and Vineyard Montage, and Silver for its SLH Pinot Noir and Arroyo Seco Chardonnay. Sanger-based Gibson Wine Co. also made a strong showing in the competition, bringing in nearly a dozen medals including Double Gold for its Cream Sherry and Gold for its Port.

Madera’s Idle Hour Winery & Kitchen won Silver for its Late Harvest Viognier. O’Neill Vintners & Distillers in Parlier took a whopping 27 Gold and Silver awards for its entries. Some of the Gold winners include its Charles Woodson’s Intercept Red Blend, Game Box Pinot Grigio and Line 39 Sauvignon Blanc. Ricchiuti Family Farms in Clovis took Silver with its My Italian Cousin – Eugenio. Madera’s San Joaquin Wine Co. earned Silver for its Moody Press Cellars Rose. Toca Madera Winery’s Tempranillo Reserve earned Gold.


Grape harvesting underway in Central California

Grape harvesting machines light up the night during this time of the year. They slowly make their way through vineyards to shake off these Pinot Grigio grapes. The nighttime harvest works better for keeping the machinery running smoothly. “You’re basically smashing the grapes off of there,” says Fresno County Farm Bureau CEO Ryan Jacobsen. “There’s sugar everywhere and so during the daytime, you’re going to have that sugar crystalizing to the point where it’s going to gum up the machinery and everything else. Secondarily, you don’t want to start the fermentation process until you get to the winery.” Jacobsen is relieved to get his wine grapes off the vine.

Smoke from wildfires in the area wasn’t enough to cause any concerns with this year’s crop. The hottest July on record though was tough on area produce. “Specifically, what we saw with grapes was a delay in maturing, simply because plants are a lot like humans,” Jacobsen said. “They slow down when it gets over that 102 mark and we saw a lot of days that were well above that.” Pinot Grigio, Zinfandel, Chardonnay and Merlot grapes are among the popular varieties that are grown here and enjoyed all over the world. “When you talk California wine, the Valley is the majority of where it’s grown,” Jacobsen said. “Approximately 70% of California’s wine is coming from the San Joaquin Valley.” When you look at Fresno County grapes, you’ll find roughly half of the crop goes into making raisins. The other half is split between wine grapes and table grapes.


Califia Farms Named Beverage Forum’s Company of the Year in the Small Company Category ($1BB in revenue or less)

Califia Farms, a leading plant-based beverage company, was recognized as Beverage Forum’s Small Company of the Year – for companies with $1 billion in revenue or less — by Beverage Industry Magazine and the Beverage Marketing Association. Califia Farms CEO Dave Ritterbush accepted the award and gave a keynote address at the annual event that brings together industry leaders to discuss the future of the beverage marketplace. “We’re honored by this recognition for the brand Califia has built over the last 10 years and where we are going in the future,” said Dave Ritterbush, CEO of Califia Farms. “With nearly two in five households buying plant-based dairy alternativesii, Califia is uniquely positioned to provide consumers with the healthy, delicious beverages they are seeking. He added, “We remain committed to creating a future where plants replace dairy without compromise.”

Califia Farms was chosen as the Small Company of the Year based on its impact on the beverage industry.  “Califia Farms is a true innovator in the beverage space,” said Michael Bellas, chairman and CEO of Beverage Marketing Corporation. “Califia continues to expand its line of dairy alternatives with unique and on-trend products like Protein Oat and its latest Barista Blend releases: Mushroom Oat and Hemp.”

About Califia Farms (pronounced “Cal-ih-FEE-ah” like California)
Inspired by the bounty of California, Califia Farms is on a mission to nourish the world with the wisdom of a plant-based lifestyle. The company creates innovative, healthy and great-tasting premium beverages that make it easy for consumers to go plant-based and dairy-free, without compromise. Califia Farms is one of the fastest-growing natural beverage companies in the U.S., as well as the leading brand in the natural products plant-based milks category.

Founded in 2010 by beverage visionary, Greg Steltenpohl, in partnership with a farmer’s co-op based in the San Joaquin Valley, Califia Farms is a uniquely California company. Its Bakersfield, Calif. manufacturing plant is powered 100% by renewable energy and re-purposes more than 90% of its post-production byproduct.


2021’s Best California Wine Counties

California is the nation’s wine garden and wine cellar, but which counties produce the most award-winning reds and whites, host the most wine tours, and are most popular and affordable for wine connoisseurs to visit?

Is Napa County tops in all categories? Nada. Napa didn’t even produce the most award-winning wines in 2019-2020.

LawnStarter ranked California’s counties on the number of wine producers, wine tours, and award-winning wines. We also looked at wine tour reviews and the number and price ranges of hotels and B&Bs around the wineries.

Below, check out our ranking of wine counties in the Golden State, highlights and lowlights, and experts commenting on what makes California wines so special.



How a Central California winery uses worms in wine production

Worms are helping a Valley winery on its path to becoming more green. Olympic-sized swimming pools at O’Neill Winery are actually beds filled with worms helping the company become greener. “Our technology at BioFiltro, what it is is the star of the show is the worm. Ultimately, the worms are known as an ecosystem or environmental engineers,” said Mai Ann Healy, BioFiltro spokesperson.

BioFiltro, an international company, was able to go through Fresno State’s Valley Ventures program that focuses on water, engineering and technology businesses. The worms are known for converting waste or organic matter. Water is spread across the worm beds and goes through levels of wood chips, river rocks, drainage cells and exit pipes. “So within four hours, our worms are getting fed, getting full and also producing more microbes and bacteria that’s furthering helping us reduce and convert waste into beneficial byproducts,” Healy said.

The technology allows the company to take about 80 million gallons of processed water and clean it. O’Neill Winery is the seventh-largest winery in California. They produce wines and spirits sold around the United States. “So what we are trying to do is provide a sustainable process so that we can have a facility that is environmentally stewards, that is reducing our carbon footprint, reducing/minimizing our waste,” said Phil Castro, senior director of winery operations. O’Neill said they’ve taken steps to be more green with solar energy and the BioFilitro system.

They’re able to save water and use that for crop irrigation and reduce the amount of water they use. “So we can ensure for generations to come that there’s water available to continue the great process of agriculture,” Castro said. A sustainable process and technology thriving here in the Valley.


Japanese ag firm settling into new Valley residence

With spring also blooms a company that has taken root in the Central Valley in recent years. Manda Fermentation USA Inc., the US brand of Manda Fermentation Co., Ltd., a Japanese organic food manufacturer founded in 1987, has expanded its presence in the San Joaquin Valley since it first made connections with the state of Fresno in 2019.

Through a series of business launches, Manda leaders were made aware of the valley’s agricultural wealth and potential. While things started with research and development – attempts to figure out how mandas products can aid in harvesting and harvesting – the company has since expanded into growing a variety of crops in the Central Valley for markets across the nation and arrive around the world. It participates in community test gardens, brings its products to more local stores, and joins the Fresno County Farm Bureau.

Clay Gilpin, market development manager at Manda USA, said the Covid-19 pandemic had delayed some of the company’s planned outreach activities, but there was a positive trend that emerged during the lockdowns. According to an analysis of the monthly U.S. retail census report from Breck’s, an online Dutch flower and garden store, the gardening industry saw sales surge despite the pandemic. Building materials and garden retail sales increased 8.6% between spring 2019 and spring 2020. “We made gardening a very popular hobby because people stayed at home – that ties in with the trend of people growing their own food and wanting to know where the food is coming from,” said Gilpin.

Manda USA sees new demographics as they target different customers. Manda has its fertilizer product Manda Harvest in local stores, including Alert-O-Lite’s new garden section, a True Value and a central fish market. Central Fish may be shipping mandas fermented food supplements in the future. Currently, Manda USA sells its larger fertilizer products direct to farmers for local use in almonds, blueberries and citrus fruits. It will also be used for olives in the near future.

In areas outside the Central Valley, Manda works with rice, walnuts, canola, corn and cannabis, among other things. Cannabis responded very well to Manda’s fertilizer products and produced larger buds on the plant. Gilpin said the company hopes to get involved as cannabis cultivation increases in our area. Manda has also tested its products at Community Life Garden, an organic community garden in Reedley. Manda has several test fields that demonstrate the effects of Manda Harvest on crops such as potatoes, onions, zucchini and radishes. The fertilizer is free to farmers who wish to use it for their crops, and most of the food grown in the garden is donated to a faith-based food bank.

Gilpin said the company is trying to keep in touch with the Ag community and beyond, which is why joining the Fresno County Farm Bureau has served as a valuable resource. “Your publications are very helpful in giving us an insight into what is going on in the marketplace, especially here in Fresno County,” said Gilpin. “It’s a way to create press releases and talk to the community. After all, we want to advertise in these publications because they reach our target market – farmers who grow organically. “

Plans to build a facility in the Central Valley, possibly for an administration office, have been postponed due to Covid-19, but Gilpin said the company is still open to a number of possible partnerships and locations elsewhere. There are visions of creating a kind of hub at the farmers’ market with other companies to join Manda’s local efforts. Gilpin said Manda USA is trying to provide the resources to grow better food while making more money in the process. “I can imagine that this will also happen in Fresno if we find the right partners and the right location,” said Gilpin. “Given our mission and the nature of our business, we would likely try revitalizing an older building and building it in an area like downtown Fresno or the Tower District to implement those ideas.”



Glen & Cellar — a premium natural food products firm headquartered in Ireland’s Tipperary County — has selected Manteca as its base to break into the United States market. The venture represents a co-op of  Ireland artisan cheese producers that has been working for the past 2½ years with City of Manteca Economic Development Manager Don Smail  to distribute its products to American  consumers.

The lure of Manteca is three-fold. *Manteca had a shuttered cheese factory with an expansive area in place to store and age up to 1,600 pallets of cheese wheels. *It is midway between Seattle and San Diego just off Interstate 5 that serves one of their four targeted American regional markets. *It is close to a point of entry via the Port of Oakland.

Glen & Cellar is taking what could be a four phased approach. The first test shipment arrived Thursday night at San Francisco International Airport. It cleared customs and initially was shipped to Sunnvalley Meats due to the need of an established American firm to receive the goods. The company is now distributing samples to potential retail vendors as well as a number of ecommerce sites. It already has a deal in place with igourmet.com — a high price point specialty gourmet food website. Glen & Cellar cheese will soon be available via that site. Smail said while COVID-19 issues delayed plans for the firm to break into the American market, the shift in shopping habits during the pandemic has made consumers more receptive to having food shipped to their homes.

Shipping directly to American retailers from Ireland is problematic for several reasons. First it would take weeks to do so. The other issue is the dearth of refrigerated storage in Ireland. This way once enough cheese is produced to fill a temperature controlled shipping container it starts what can be a six to eight weeks or longer journey to Oakland. Even if the cheese is delayed in route, nothing is lost as it is aging. The co-op produces more than a hundred varieties of cheese. Among the first samples being distributed are cheddar, gouda, and emmental. Glen & Cellar is also working with European producers with the goal of selling hundreds of various artisan cheese varieties produced on farms on the Continent. They deal only with producers that grass feed their cows.

As the firm ramps up its retail network that expect will include e-commerce sites as well as specialty delis, they will start shipping temperature controlled containers  that can hold 22,000 pounds of cheese. They will be shipped via the Panama Canal to the Port of Oakland. They will then be taken to the former Cal Suprema Cheese plant on North Airport Way just north of Crothall Laundry Services and south of 5.11 Tactical. The cheese plant had a large refrigerator area expansion completed just before  closing  15 years ago. It is large enough to hold 1,600 pallets stacked with cheese. The goal is to have the cheese age for roughly 18 months in Manteca. Then it would be cut, wrapped and shipped to customers. Given there is a 25 percent tariff on imported cheese, the company’s business plan uses the aging process to its advantage.

How it works is simple. If the cheese is 2 months old when it arrives in Oakland, it could be valued at $5 per pound. Since cheese grows in value as it ages, at 18 months it could be worth $12. Under existing law when the product is actually sold it is taxed at the value that it was when it entered the country. The Manteca location would double initially as an aging, cutting, and packaging facility as well as a West Coast distribution center to retailers. It would also supply packaged cheese to three other regional distribution centers in the country. The company hopes to eventually start making artisan cheeses in Manteca. If it does they will employ a process mandated in Ireland that eliminates the smell and prohibits the dumping of brine that creates havoc with underground water supplies due to its high salinity.

While firms such as Hilmar Cheese ship their brine to a de-salinization plant in Oakland, the Irish cheese concern has perfected a process that recycles the brine and adds what salt was lost in the cheese making process. Smail noted the brine they are using is more than  5 years old. That eliminates the odors that plagued Cam Suprema Cheese when it operated in northwest Manteca. It also Smail is hopeful that Glen & Ellen will get to a fourth phase involving retail sales from there Manteca location.



An acquisition by Sun-Maid will put the popular brand onto baby food aisles. Sun-Maid Growers of California announced Wednesday it will purchase Plum Organics, an organic baby food brand from Campbell Soup Co., according to a news release. Terms of the deal were not disclosed. It is expected to close this spring. Plum Organics offers food and snacks for babies and children.

This will be the first business acquisition in Sun-Maid’s 109-year history. “Plum is a natural fit for the Sun-Maid family given our expertise, leadership and rapid growth in healthy snacking, along with our strong emotional connection with family households,” said Harry Overly, CEO and president of Sun-Maid, in a statement. “Its acquisition is an integral part of our continued dedication to providing superior products while delivering category growth.” Chris Foley, Campbell’s president of Meals & Beverages, said, “The sale of the Plum Organics baby food brand is part of our ongoing strategic process to create even greater focus on driving growth in the division’s core categories of soup, sauces and beverages.”

Plum Organics was founded in 2007 by a group of parents on a mission to give the very best food to their little ones, according to a news release. Campbell acquired Plum in 2013. Sun-Maid was advised in the deal by Cascadia Capital. Campbell was advised by Evercore. Overly took the reins of Sun-Maid in 2017 with a dedication to bring dried fruit back to popularity.

In a recent presentation to Fresno Rotary Club members, Overly spoke on the decline of dried fruit. “Our brand has almost skipped a generation because they weren’t innovating and communicating,” Overly said. Under Overly’s control, the brand updated its logo, which he said is the most recognizable in the business. They also have launched new products including flavored raisins and yogurt-covered raisins to renew interest in the fruit. Overly said they’re trying to reimagine the dried fruit aisle and make it more of an attraction.

At the production end, Overly said the company has updated its pricing model to better reflect market prices to its cooperative of approximately 750 growers. Previous pricing models had established prices before markets determined where demand existed. Globally, the United States has lost out in market share to countries such as Iran, Turkey and China. In 2018, U.S. volume share was over 18%. By 2020, that share had dipped below 16%.