Visit Date: 30th March 2016
Location: Mendota, Fresno, California
The San Joaquin Valley in California, once home to cotton fields, is now the epicentre of an incredible agricultural boom that has industrialised a noble fruit and turned it into a rising star.
Since that expansion started in the late 1990s, California’s mandarin plantings have increased 10-fold, to 50,000 acres from 5,000. Growth in this sector has been epic. The state now harvests 92% of the US nation’s mandarin crop, while unfortunately Florida, troubled by citrus greening disease and obsolete varieties with seeds, has had its share drop to 8%, from 66%. California is certainly forging ahead dominating the US market share.
Consumers like convenience, and the mandarin, popularly known as a tangerine has become commonplace in many peoples diets, as they are easy pealing with seedless varieties and nicely fit inside a child’s lunchbox. Not surprisingly, the US’s consumption of mandarins has doubled, while orange sales have dramatically declined.
Two varieties of seedless, easy-peeling mandarins have been at the forefront in the growth of this citrus sector. Through improved farming technologies which includes advanced irrigation systems, horticulturists have figured out how to grow these varieties in the harsh, dry and hot climate of the San Joaquin Valley.
Our Nuffield group were lucky enough to spend an hour or so with Wonderful Citrus, where we were given an exclusive tour around their state of the art ‘Wonderful Halos Mandarins’ packing plant, the largest of its kind in the world.
Measuring 640,000 square feet, the equivalent of 11 football fields, the plant runs 20 hours a day, six days a week during harvest season. The orange packing lines are the biggest fresh citrus packing lines in the US, capable of processing over 100 tonnes of citrus per hour.
To make sure every single fruit meets high standards, Wonderful Citrus use multiple control points to ensure accurate grading. The scale of the packing house is incredible, and included a grading table able to sift through freshly harvested crop separating, if desired, the mandarins into 52 categories based on colour, ripeness, sweetness and weight. An on-site lab tests the brix to acid ratio (an important measure for sweetness) for consistent flavour and balance. High speed optical technologies check the sweetness of the fruit before packing, and they also have full time quality control experts supervising the process every step of the way throughout the packing procedure.
Renewable energy consumption was at the heart of the design of the plant, and thus the site contains one of the biggest customer owned rooftop solar plants in the US, capable of generating 2.7MW of power. When combined with the 1.6MW fuel sell, which produces electricity from natural gas with no combustion, more than 40% of the plants energy is derived from green energy generation. Quite remarkable!
Walking around the packing plant it was clear that Wonderful Citrus put their employees at the heart of their company. With a vast number of staff on site at any one time, there was a canteen with a healthy menu, games room and gym. Looking after the health of their staff is a core principle, and all staff also benefited from membership of a health clinic. Recruitment of good people is a key challenge for many businesses, but this most defiantly seemed to be one company that had got the culture right, and this was clearly evident on everybody’s faces.
The Wonderful Halo brand was launched 3 years ago, and through a slick, strategic marketing exercise Wonderful Citrus managed to achieve an 81% brand awareness after year one, and in this time have seen their market share grow by 12%. It is clear that the mandarin is a fruit bowl favourite in the US, and from our brief tour my experience was that whilst Wonderful Citrus is a company on the rise, it was evident that the importance of people and culture remain at the heart of the business.
As I continue my travels, California just keeps on getting more diverse and interesting.