Fruit breeders plant seeds of global success

Large investments are being made in the high-tech labs and experimental ag fields where Kern County scientists breed new varieties of fruit to help farmers around the world adapt to shifting consumer tastes, developing markets and changing climates. Two local operations whose intellectual property accounts for varieties covering tens of thousands of acres have recently poured money into new, state-of-the-art research facilities in Wasco and McFarland. One recently opened and the other is under development.

The physical expansions at Sun World and International Fruit Genetics are another positive sign for a local food-innovations industry that, since being spawned by local growers such as carrot giant Bolthouse Farms, has grown to employ dozens of highly educated specialists. Work done at these innovation facilities is not genetic modification, per se, but conventional cross-breeding of plants to bring out desirable traits ranging from a crisp crunch to a long shelf life. The activity is increasingly important to the future of global agriculture, said the president of the California Fresh Fruit Association, Ian LeMay. He said Kern County is fortunate to have some of the field’s major players.

After decades in which industry concerns dominated, such as a variety’s ability to withstand long shipments, he said growers now must respond to consumers’ ever-more sophisticated demands for grapes with a certain flavor or an apricot with just the right blush. The task becomes more complicated when considering that tastes vary significantly depending where the fruit is sold. “You have growers now really looking and listening to what that consumer demand is and making appropriate decisions to plant what’s in high demand,” LeMay said.

The same holds true for farmers looking to increase their yield per acre and reduce the amount of cold weather their orchards need to produce properly. LeMay said fruit breeders help address these kinds of challenges. Kevin Andrew, senior vice president at Bakersfield-based farming company Illume, which plants varieties developed by Sun World and IFG, said local fruit-breeding has created noticeable improvements in fruit. He recalled telling someone years ago that if grapes tasted better, sales would rise. “Sometimes the box had more flavor than the grapes,” said Andrew, a former chief operating officer at Sun World. He added that new flavor profiles seem to have actually changed consumer preferences.

While much of Sun World’s and IFG’s efforts are focused internationally, local shoppers may recognize some of the company’s innovations. IFG came up with the table grape variety that tastes like cotton candy, for example, and Sun World’s corporate lineage introduced the first seedless watermelons, sweet red peppers and vine-ripened tomatoes. Sun World, based in Palm Desert with a substantial local presence, was founded in the mid-1970s in Bakersfield as a packer and marketer of fresh produce. Its acquisition in 1989 of Superior Farming Co., a substantial local landowner at the time, gave Sun World its start in fruit breeding.

After a series of corporate changes including its 2013 purchase by Los Angeles investment firm Renewable Resources Group, which still owns the company, Sun World sold the last of its food-production operations in May 2019 to tighten its focus on fruit breeding. That kind of work used to be done in the Fresno area by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and by the University of California. But as public investment in the activity has waned, Sun World President and CEO David Marguelas said, private industry has stepped up. Focused on table grapes and stone fruit, the company now has more than 300 registered trademarks and licenses 1,700 growers in places like Chile, Israel, South Africa and Spain.

It has gone from zero licensed acres of planted crops in 2001 to 12,000 acres in 2010 and about 50,000 this year, Marguleas said, adding the company charges a percentage of royalties based on the quantity of fruit produced and sold by its licensees. He said the company has 30 employees stationed around the globe to help farmers maximize their yields and produce consistent quality. Sun World’s new Wasco research facility, at 17,000 square feet, is four to five times larger than its previous facility nearby. It’s surrounded by 160 acres of farmland used for research and development.

The company’s team of about 20 chemists, biologists and molecular scientists evaluates as many as 70,000 seedlings a year. Of that, only two or three table grape varieties emerge on the market, along with half a dozen stone-fruit varieties, Marguleas said. “It’s a very imprecise process, which results in a lot of eventual precision,” he said, “in that we’re looking for just the right, perfect new seedless grape, the perfect red-fleshed plum with loads of natural sugar and antioxidants and the perfect apricot with a nice sort of blush and wonderful apricot aroma.” He estimated that the process of coming up with a new variety takes eight to 10 years. What’s sometimes tricky, Marguleas said, is looking into the “proverbial crystal ball” to anticipate what consumers will look for a decade from now. A company goal that doesn’t rely on guessing, he said, is coming up with fruit that can be grown in more environmentally sustainable ways, requiring fewer soil amendments, chemicals and water.

IFG, a friendly local competitor of Sun World, was founded in 2001 by a former Sun World plant breeder. With offices in Bakersfield and a research center in Delano, IFG’s focus has been on improving consumers’ experience on eating grapes, raisins and cherries, CEO Andy Higgins said. Having outgrown its existing buildings and fields, the company bought land this year in McFarland, where it has already begun planting experimental varieties and expects to begin construction in spring on four buildings totaling about 35,000 square feet.

The project will add space for cold storage, administration, training, post-harvest evaluation and a full laboratory. Part of the idea, Higgins said, is to make the company more attractive for the sake of bringing in top talent. It currently employs about 20 scientists, he added. IFG licenses its varieties to farmers in 14 countries combining for more than 70,000 acres of trademarked produce. It has 45 patented varieties and more than 1,000 licensees.

Though table grapes have been a mainstay, Higgins said, raisins have become a focus because of industry demand for new varieties. There’s also been an emphasis on cherries because changing weather patterns have created a need for trees that don’t require as many “chill hours” to produce quality fruit. Higgins said the company is happy to help. “We’re proud to be a part of the community and doing these things that are ultimately changing the world’s perception of a major category” of produce, he said.,planted%20crops%20in%202001%20to%2012%2C000…%20More%20


E. & J. Gallo Winery announced Tuesday that it has finally completed an $810 million purchase from Constellation Brands Inc. The Modesto-based company got 30-plus labels at various price levels, along with winemaking capacity in the Lodi area and four other locations.

The two industry giants announced in April 2019 that they had agreed on a larger deal, totaling $1.7 billion. The Federal Trade Commission raised concerns about Gallo getting too much control of the sparkling wine, dessert wine and brandy markets. The parties agreed to strike those portions from the transaction in a Dec. 23 draft ruling by the FTC. The revised purchase price was initially $1.1 billion. It dropped again to $810 million “related primarily to changes in inventory for which Constellation has already received the benefit,” a news release from that company said.

Gallo is adding about 350 employees to the 7,000 or so it already had in Modesto and other locations around the world. “The closing of this transaction represents our company’s long-term commitment to the wine industry,” said Ernest J. Gallo, the third-generation CEO, in another release. “We are pleased to welcome the new employees joining the Gallo family.” Gallo is making its first foray into the New York state industry, with Taylor and a few other brands. It also is getting its second winery in Washington state and adding to its holdings in premium and mid-priced California regions.

Gallo, founded in Modesto in 1933 by brothers Ernest and Julio Gallo, was the world’s largest wine producer even before the Constellation purchase. It has made low-priced bottles throughout its history and ventured into premium regions starting in the 1980s. Gallo also markets vodka, gin and other spirits.

  • Gallo got major production volume at Turner Road Vintners near Lodi. This plant mainly makes wines with the “California” appellation, cheaper for consumers than Napa Valley and other premium sources. Among the brands are Vendange, Black Box, Rex Goliath and Toasted Head.
  • Gallo added to its premium portfolio with Franciscan in Napa; Ravenswood and Clos du Bois in Sonoma County; and Hidden Crush, Estancia and Wild Horse on the Central Coast. Another new brand, Mark West, has both premium and California appellations.
  • Hogue Cellars joins Gallo’s Columbia Winery in Washington.
  • Gallo got Blufeld from Germany and Diseno from Argentina to go with existing imports from several countries.
  • The company takes over the New York winery that produces the Taylor, Arbor Mist, Wild Irish Rose and Manischewitz brands.

The company also has closed on the Nobilo winery in New Zealand in a separate $130 million transaction with Constellation.

The FTC approved the deal with a few anti-trust conditions. Gallo must sell its Sheffield Cellars port and Fairbanks sherry to Precept Wine, based in Seattle. Constellation must retain its Cook’s and J Roget sparkling wines and sell its Paul Masson brandy to Sazerac, based in New Orleans. The large Mission Bell Winery near Madera also was stricken from the deal. Constellation, based in Victor, N.Y., said selling to Gallo would allow it to concentrate on wines priced at more than $11 per bottle. This company also is a key player in the beer and spirits industries.

North American farmers profit as consumers pressure food business to go green

Beer made from rice grown with less water, rye planted in the off-season and the sale of carbon credits to tech firms are just a few of the changes North American farmers are making as the food industry strives to go green. The changes are enabling some farmers to earn extra money from industry giants like Cargill, Nutrien and Anheuser-Busch. Consumers are pressuring food producers to support farms that use less water and fertilizer, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and use more natural techniques to maintain soil quality.

Investments in sustainability remain a tiny part of overall spending by the agriculture sector, which enjoyed healthy profits in 2020. They may help to head off more costly regulations down the road now that Democratic climate advocate Joe Biden was elected U.S. president. Some companies, like farm retailer and fertilizer producer Nutrien , are also opening new revenue potential for farmers by monetizing the carbon their fields soak up. The companies say technology is improving measurement and tracking of carbon capture, although some environmental activists question the benefit of such programs and how sequestered greenhouse gas volumes can be verified.

Sustainable techniques farmers are adopting include refraining from tilling soil at times to preserve carbon. Some are adding an off-season cover crop of rye or grass to restore soil nutrients instead of applying heavy fertilizer loads over the winter that can contaminate local water supplies. A study conducted by agriculture technology company Indigo Ag estimated that if U.S. corn, soy and wheat farmers employed no-till and cover crops on 15% of fields, they would generate an additional $600 million by reducing costs, bolstering soil productivity or selling carbon credits.

Indigo has a partnership with brewer Anheuser-Busch Inbev NV, which plans to buy 2.6 million bushels of rice this year grown with less water and nitrogen fertilizer than conventional rice. Anheuser-Busch said that is up from 2.2 million bushels last year and accounts for 10% of its U.S. rice supplies.

Bill Jones, the brewer’s manager of raw materials, said farmers voluntarily growing rice with a lower environmental impact along the sensitive Mississippi River would be less disruptive to supplies than having local authorities require such practices by legislating changes to water and nitrogen use. “We look at supply chain security. I see this gaining traction,” he said, noting that Minnesota and other U.S. states and conservation districts worried about polluting the Mississippi are already introducing limits on how much manure farmers can spread on fields. Arkansas farmer Carson Stewart used the program for the first time this year, earmarking his entire 340-acre rice crop to Anheuser-Busch. Depending on milling quality, his rice may earn up to $1.50 a bushel more than conventional rice, a premium of about 27%, he said.

Worms help power Valley winery’s wastewater system

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.


Delays involving coronavirus pushed the publishing of Central Valley crop reports back this year. While farm receipts from 2018 to 2019 show an almost unchanging total, beneath the surface, shifts in dominant crops have begun to occur as growers face labor shortages and higher water demand. Cumulatively, ag commissioners across Fresno, Tulare, Kings and Madera counties report gross values in 2019 equaling $19.41 billion, down from $19.45 billion in 2018.

Almonds have been the top crop for several years in Fresno County, but in other counties, they are still coming into their own. In Tulare County, almonds ranked No. 6, up from No. 8 the year before. The nut grossed $426 million in 2019, up from $311 million. Acreage also increased, up 11,000 acres from 2018 to 78,300 acres. Growers have been fearing a price drop as acreage continues to grow, said Roland Fumasi, North American Regional Head for RaboResearch Food & Agribusiness in a previous interview. Supply continues to grow, setting shipment records. Another record year is predicted for the crop, with estimates ranging at 3 billion pounds being produced. Lower prices means some California crops can better compete abroad against other producers, but the United States produces 80% of almonds worldwide. Lower prices don’t give California growers an edge like they should. However, lower prices means more people can afford the nut. Because of lower pricing and strong demand, shipments have been robust, Fumasi said.

Almonds averaged $4,942 a ton across the four counties, according to the crop reports in 2019. Prices in 2018 averaged $4,664 a ton. Decreases in wine acreage lead a retreat in grapes across the Central Valley. In Fresno County, raisin and table grape acreage had slight increases. Grapes used to consistently hold the top spot over the years, competing with citrus. Of late, vineyards have bequeathed that title to less labor-intensive crops such as almonds. Table grapes have seen a rise over the past few years, according to Ian LeMay, president of the California Fresh Fruit Association. There has been a shift in varieties for sweeter grapes, he said.

The industry still relies on human hands and labor represents the biggest issue, followed by water. Bunches of grapes are still picked by hand, then sent down the rows in wheelbarrows where they’re packed. Even in the off-season, vines need to be thinned and prepped. Forty percent of table grapes go overseas and foreign markets view California grapes as “premium,” said LeMay. So while labor demands have put pressure on getting higher prices, that view of quality coming from the Central Valley hasn’t affected the fruit’s ability to compete internationally “yet,” said LeMay.

Grapes grossed $2.07 billion, down from $2.27 billion in 2018. Acreage increased in Tulare County to 53,680 acres from 51,950 acres in 2018. Acreage decreased in Fresno County to 164,549 acres from 168,038 in 2018. Over the last few years, citrus has struggled, said Casey Creamer, president of California Citrus Mutual. Larger volume crops coupled with trade disputes have caused problems all around for citrus growers. “When one is out of whack, it creates a real problem in the industry,” said Creamer. Exports represent 30% of the market for citrus. Oranges, both navel and Valencia, grossed $1.17 billion, up from $762 million, according to crop reports. Creamer says 2020 has cause for growers to be more optimistic about citrus.

The loss of restaurant purchasing has put lemons at a loss, but domestic demand for citrus, especially in the face of a pandemic, has raised pricing for oranges and mandarins. The upcoming winter crop for navels looks like the fruit will have good size and quality, Creamer said. It is a little too early to tell how foreign markets will be for the upcoming crop, but he anticipates domestic demand to continue to be strong.

A phase-one agreement in trade deals between the U.S. and China in February dropped tariffs on citrus to 35% from 75%. The fact that the development occurred a month before the pandemic stymied any potential boon growers could have experienced from the negotiation. Growers may see a benefit for this season’s harvest, however. Some other notable development occurred in fruits and veggies. Melons did well in 2019 in Fresno County, growing to $194 million from $156 million in 2018. Lettuce leaf more than tripled to $97 million from $31 million. Recorded price per unit in the crop reports almost tripled to $1,350 a ton from $500. Garlic and onions had a tough year with late spring rains, according to Bob Ehn, CEO of the Garlic and Onion Research Advisory Board.

A fungus called garlic rust was prevalent, causing growers to spray three to five times that season. Hail also damaged a lot of fresh market onions. Onions halved to $178 million from $369 million. Garlic dropped to $365 million from $434 million.

2018 was a banner year, however, setting high marks for the crops. 2020 is looking to do the same, said Ehn. The advisory board is looking to stretch its influence into Kern and Madera counties. Critical water issues in west Fresno County could pose a threat into the future, Ehn said. In the past 10 years, that region of Fresno County grows 95% of garlic for the country.

Blue Diamond reports $1.59 billion in revenue. Almond milk from Turlock is a hit

Blue Diamond Growers had $1.59 billion in revenue in its latest annual report, boosted in part by the new almond milk operation in Turlock. The Sacramento-based cooperative saw a 1.5% increase in the fiscal year ending Aug. 28 over the previous year. It was announced during a Nov. 23-24 online event that replaced the usual luncheon at Modesto Center Plaza.

Blue Diamond employs about 1,800 people at plants in Sacramento, Salida and Turlock, up about 100 from a year ago. It is the biggest player in a California almond industry that accounts for about 80 percent of the global supply. This was the 110th annual meeting for the company, launched in Sacramento in 1910. Plants followed in Salida in 1968 and Turlock in 2013. The Washington Road plant in June added Almond Breeze milk to its slicing, dicing, blanching and almond flour production. Before that, the Sacramento plant made all of this dairy substitute.

The Salida plant long did just basic processing of bulk almonds bound for food makers around the world and the Turlock and Sacramento plants. Last year, the Sisk Road site added dry-roasting and flour production. This past spring, it expanded warehouse space for incoming nuts by 20 percent.,year%20ending%20Aug.%2028%20over%20the%20previous%20year.

Top World Region – San Joaquin Valley Agriculture

Fresno County is home to over 1.4 million acres of productive pasture and farmland. It remained the top ag county in the state and nation. Ag commissioner Melissa Cregan delivered the crop report to county supervisors. Cregan told the board, “The 2019 gross production value for agriculture in Fresno County was $7.718 billion.”

That figure was down 2% from a year ago but the battle to be the number-one ag producer was extremely tight among valley counties. Fresno County topped the list at $7.71 billion. Kern County was right behind at $7.62 billion, while Tulare County was at $7.50 billion.

Fresno County Farm Bureau CEO Ryan Jacobsen explained, “In a year like this year, you really appreciate that the value that every single farmer contributes really makes that difference.” The pandemic decreased demand for some crops during the spring. In April, we watched some lettuce get disced back into the ground because orders for restaurants and schools were canceled due to a sudden drop in demand in the foodservice industry. Cregan said, “Fresno County’s agricultural strength is based on the diversity of the crops we produce.”

Over 300 crops were grown in Fresno County. Seventy-eight of them topped $1 million in annual ag production. Jacobsen said, “The shining star once again was almonds, saw a dramatic increase there. A lot of that was acreage based.” Almonds were worth over $1.5 billion in 2019.

The number-two crop, grapes, dipped under the billion-dollar mark though. Jacobsen said, “Table grapes, wine grapes as well as raisins. It’s been tough for the local grape industry.” Pistachios, poultry and milk rounded out the county’s top five crops. Cregan thanked local growers and ranchers for their resiliency during a tough year. She said, “All the glory goes to the farmers because they’re the ones producing these crops and placed us where we are.” International trade was down. Ag officials believe continued challenges posed by the pandemic may lead to lower production numbers next year.

Tehachapi Mountains receives wine growing designation

After years of hard work, Tehachapi Mountains has received accreditation for its award-winning wines. On Wednesday, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, announced that local vintners can now label their bottles of wine as the Tehachapi Mountains American Viticultural Area.

Established by the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, this action will allow Tehachapi wines to compete with other well-known AVAs in the state such as Napa, Sonoma and Paso Robles. There are currently 251 AVAs in the United States, including 140 in California.

Jim Arnold, Triassic Vineyards’ owner and president of Tehachapi Wine Growers Commission, was instrumental in the Tehachapi Mountains receiving its AVA accreditation. “I am excited that the Tehachapi Mountains American Viticultural Area has been approved. This means a lot for the Tehachapi wine growers, the greater Tehachapi area and Kern County. In addition to being known as ‘The Land of Four Seasons,’ Tehachapi will become known as an exceptional wine-growing region tucked away in the Tehachapi Mountains,” said Arnold. Arnold said that if it wasn’t for the efforts of Bob and Patty Souza and Chuck McCollough, Tehachapi’s original wine growers, the recent accreditation could not have been possible.

In 2018, Tehachapi area vineyard owners filed a petition with the TTB to establish an AVA in the region. It was accepted as perfected and ready for rule-making later that year.  “This announcement is welcome news for our community, which has been working to establish the Tehachapi Mountains AVA for several years and is something I have strongly supported and urged the administration to finalize,” McCarthy wrote in a news release. The Tehachapi Mountains AVA will encompass approximately 58,000 acres of some of the highest elevations in the country.

According to Julie Bell, Tehachapi Mountains AVA petition author, the establishment of the Tehachapi Mountains AVA will give Tehachapi area winegrowers the ability to develop and market their wine based on the reputation of the Tehachapi area for producing high-quality wine grapes. “The high altitude, yet warm conditions truly make the Tehachapi area unique, providing winegrowers a setting to grow and fully ripen quality wine grapes, which require both warm, sunny days and cool nights to develop the subtle flavors necessary to make outstanding wines,” Bell said in the news release.

McCarthy said that the AVA designation will also help stimulate the local economy by further putting Tehachapi wines on the map. “I think this is the most wonderful thing that could happen to Tehachapi. Now, we are a wine-growing region, and we get to be recognized for it, and I couldn’t be happier,” Tehachapi Mayor Susan Wiggins said Wednesday.

City Manager Greg Garrett also voiced his excitement.  “The city of Tehachapi is thrilled to raise a glass in cheers to our local wine growers,” Garrett said Wednesday. “The accreditation of the Tehachapi Mountains AVA not only brings our local growers and winemakers into the spotlight, but all of our community will benefit from the positive economic benefit it brings us. This accreditation could not have been possible without the leadership of Congressman McCarthy and the growers working together to achieve this goal. Akin to a good blend of wine.”

According to Zack Scrivner, 2nd District Kern County supervisor, the AVA accreditation provides an important economic development tool for the regional vineyards, wineries and tasting rooms, which will, in turn, increase tourism and sales. “I congratulate the Tehachapi Wine Growers Commission and the Greater Tehachapi Economic Development Council who have worked so hard to bring this important designation to our beautiful region,” Scrivner wrote.

Baloian growing more than vegetables, Fresno expansion complete

As the summer season settles in for Baloian Farms, commodity harvests are approaching the peak of the season, the completion of a massive facility expansion in Fresno, CA, is a welcomed sight. The expansion includes the creation of additional dock space, the doubling the number of loading bay doors, and increased semi-truck parking capacity. These expansion areas combine to facilitate additional storage capacity for crops and also increases outbound loading efficiencies. The expansion simultaneously increases cross-docking capabilities for the growing needs of customers.

“We are thrilled for the opportunity to grow with our customers, and this facility expansion is just one phase of many that incorporates many years of planning and strategy,” said Jeremy Lane, sales manager for Baloian Farms. “Our long-term growth strategy includes year-round production of peppers, squash, eggplant, and chile peppers for distribution within the United States, Canada and Mexico.”

Timothy Baloian, CEO of Baloian Farms said, “The expansion of our Fresno location is an important investment in customer service, and we are contributing to the sustainability of our regional growers and business partners, both from a farming standpoint, and also from our business model that accommodates for the changing needs of our customers.”

Baloian Farms’ management anticipates an increasing need for multiple commodities to be ready and available to customers at all times. By increasing their product line this season to add yams, chili peppers, and cucumbers, these facility expansion plans are well served to bring Baloian Farms into a new decade of commodity leadership and growth.

Baloian Farms is a fourth-generation, vertically integrated family farm, with year-round operations specializing in peppers and mixed vegetables grown in California and Mexico.

Local growers debut carrot hot dogs

From the land of tri-tip sandwich fundraisers and 24-hour biscuits-and-gravy sales now comes this: hot dogs made from whole carrots. Don’t act surprised. Despite its red-meat reputation Bakersfield is home to the country’s two largest carrot growers, the invention of the popular ‘baby carrot’ snack and a carrot-focused innovation lab employing 15 food scientists on East Brundage Lane.