Sun-Maid Growers of California
Sun-Maid is one of the most recognized trademarks in the today’s crowded marketplace. Consumers associate the brand with natural and nutritious dried fruit products, represented by the healthy young woman in the red bonnet with the yellow sun at her back. Although she’s now over 90 years old, the “Sun Maid” still projects an aura of health and vitality, signifying the benefits of naturally dried raisins.
Most consumers don’t understand the nature of the farmer’s cooperative that is behind the brand. But it is an important story for today’s farmers, who are looking for ways to compete in an increasingly competitive global marketplace.
Sun-Maid was formed in 1912 under the name California Associated Raisin Company (CARC). Their goal was to pool advertising resources and stabilize prices. The raisin growers had been suffering from wholesale price swings as more and more growers jumped into sun-dried raisins. CARC debuted with a spectacular marketing gimmick, sending a train pulling sixty raisin-laden freight cars to Chicago, with each car displaying a banner with the slogan, "Raisins Grown by 6,000 California Growers." In 1915, the company introduced its new brand name and trademark, “Sun-Maid.” In 1922, CARC changed its name to Sun-Maid Growers to link itself more explicitly with its famous logo.
In 1918, the cooperative opened a massive processing plant in Fresno, California that would serve as its home for the next 46 years. Over the next few years, they grew rapidly, and by 1922 85% of the California raisin farmers were members. They hit hard times in the mid-20s and declared bankruptcy. Just as they began to regain financial solvency, the Great Depression hit. Finally, the co-op became profitable again in the 40s, after both the U.S. and state government acted to stabilize raisin commodity prices. Throughout the troubled time, the trademark remained popular and raisins continued to sale. Full color booklets were distributed to shoppers that combined healthy recipes with beautiful artwork reflective of the period. Norman Rockwell’s popular illustrations were commissioned at one point for Sun Maid print advertising.
By 1961, a new plant was needed. Ground-breaking took place in Kingsburg, California and the plant opened in 1964. It covered 73 acres and was voted one of America’s top new plants by Factory Magazine. In 1970, the Sun Maid logo was modernized, but retained the main look of a young, healthy woman in a red bonnet with a tray of grapes standing in the sun. The 70s would be a tough decade for the growers, with a severe late spring freeze in 1972 and more severe weather in 1976, ’77 and ’78.
Today, Sun-Maid has about 1,000 grape raisin growers. Eight hundred are co-op members, and about 200 sell to the cooperative but are non-members. Their numbers reflect the story of agriculture in the United States – fewer growers that are larger. Tonnage produced hasn’t changed much over time, but the number of growers decreased. In the next 20 years, the coop expects the number of growers to plateau, with only the large growers remaining.
About 20 years ago the co-op began to look for ways to mechanize the raisin harvest. The traditional methods require a large, transient labor force. The innovative growers experimented with new trellising ideas and corresponding harvest equipment. The trellis brought the fruit to a place where it could be mechanically picked. The difficult part was separating the fruiting canes from the developing canes which would bear the next year’s fruit.
The idea was tried out to dry the fruit on the vine instead of picking it and laying out on paper trays. The cooperative did a lot of the research & development for that effort.
Still, as long as the labor was available, the old ways dominated the industry. Then, when labor became tight, the innovations picked up. The Extension Service and the Kearny Ag Station helped with some of research. One coop staff member worked with some of the interested growers to try some new techniques. As labor costs have risen and labor has become more scarce over the past 10 years the growers began to see the changes as more urgent. Trellising systems were available but they required more capital than traditional systems. A custom harvest industry began to develop.
A harvesting company out of the state of Washington became interested in the raisin harvest. They had a blueberry harvester that they worked on to adapt to work with the dried grapes on the vine. There was also an attempt to modify a wine grape harvester. And the growers began to dry on a continuous paper tray.
Harvest of this type can be done without a trellising system. It requires less of an investment and can be uses in existing vineyards, and so has been widely adopted. About half of the crop is now being mechanically harvested.
Raisin grapes must be seedless. The Thompson seedless grape has been the industry standard since the early 1900s. Thompson grapes/raisins are not harvested until late September, and so weather is big concern. For optimal harvest, it needs to be hot and dry during harvest. There are some new grape varieties developed by the Kerny Field Station (Dovine and Selma Pete) that ripen around the first of August, which can spread the harvest out.
An additional advantage with the new trellising systems is the increase in production. By allowing more sunlight to hit the vines, the vine can spread over the top of the field (drive under the canopy). It used to be that 2 dry tons per acre was a good harvest. With the new systems, growers can get 4-5 dry tons per acre. This is also important because urbanization continues to cut into the raisin production acres. If the growers are able to double and almost triple their production per acre, it eases the need for additional land.
Sun-Maid has the largest share of the consumer pack market. Half of their production goes to consumer pack, the other half to industrial food packing in products such as raisin bran and raisin bread. Their goal is to find new and innovative ways to use raisins and to keep that part of their business strong and growing. Sun-Maid offers a full line of Sun-Maid dried fruit products – dates, apricots, prunes and all kinds of mixed dried fruit packages.
They received a Value-Added Ag grant that helped move forward on a RFID bar-coding project. The system is being tested this year (2008). Customer influence pushed the cooperative in that direction and funds were needed to accelerate the project. The technology was needed in order to work with a large retail buyer.
The dried fruit industry is very steady and mature. Still, the cooperative sees the need to grow the business and tweak their 100 year-old operation to do better. Every food manufacturer in the country is facing the need to balance the propriety nature of RFID technology with sharing information.
Board of Directors
There are 12 directors, with 3 directors from each of 4 districts. Each district produces about the same amount of production tonnage. The directors have 3 year terms that are staggered. There are no term limits. The two directors that are not up for election that term make up the nominating committee. The first question is “are you seeking re-election?” If not, then they try to find someone interested in running. There is written criteria for being a director. The current directors often have to encourage someone with the right qualifications to run.
Quarterly district meetings sometimes help to “surface” growers that might be good for the board. There is no formal “leadership” program.
In February, district meetings are held and names are put forward for nomination. Nominations can also be received from the floor. If there is just one name, the members can elect that night. If there are two names or more, a ballot is put out to the membership. Four directors are elected every year.
The co-op conducts an all day session on what is expected of the directors every year. They feel that it is a good review for all the directors. Subjects covered are duties, responsibilities, compliance and ethics. There are occasional one day trainings on subjects like finance.
The cooperative also sends representatives to the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives Annual meeting. The goal is to have 3-4 sessions over the course of the year to work with the board. The sessions are in conjunction with the board meeting when possible. The board encourages management to have this program for them.
The co-op staff also holds 3-4 sessions per year with growers. The staff covers identified subjects and can bring in an “expert” if needed. Sometimes the sessions are specific and limited to one subject, other times they cover several subjects.
Most of the growers on the board are the full time farmers with larger operations that have a sizable raisin segment. These growers are diversified into other crops as well, almonds, fresh grapes, tree fruit, wine grapes and other enterprises. With 300 commercial crops grown in Fresno County, there is a lot of diversity.
The coop has a bulletin that goes out quarterly and a newsletter that goes out periodically. They have a grower section on their website where they can obtain current information.
The Sun-Maid cooperative and its symbol of good health, the Sun-Maid, have stood the test of time. They rely on a healthy product and sensible business practices, along with constant innovation to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow.
About USDA VAPG
VAPG funding has been offered by the USDA periodically since the early 2000s. A new round of funding is anticipated to be announced in the coming months. To be considered value added, projects must show how products are differentiated in specific ways from commodity crops. Typically, projects must also show how they may deliver greater returns to producers.
Independent producers, farmer or rancher cooperatives, agricultural producer groups, and producer-owned business ventures, including non-profit organizations, may apply. In previous cycles, applicants were required to be producers of the raw commodity who will maintain ownership of that commodity through the process of creating a value-added product. Grants have been available for planning projects (such as marketing and business plans and feasibility studies) and working capital projects (which might include wages or packaging supplies). (http://www.rd.usda.gov/)