Sun Maid Raisins – California

Visit Date: 29th March 2016
Location: Kingsburg, Fresno, California

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How many of us were sent off to school with a small box of Sun Maid Raisins with our packed lunch? Visiting the Sun Maid’s headquarters in Kingsburg, Fresno in California certainly brought back memories for me. Our Nuffield group spent a couple of hours learning about the raisin market and how raisins are produced.

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Sun Maid is a privately owned cooperative of raisin growers and forms the largest raisin and dried fruit processor in the world. As a cooperative, Sun Maid is made up of approximately 850 family farmers who grow raisin grapes within 100 miles radius of the processing plant.

Raisins are a favourite to many consumers as a snack or as an ingredient, and over the past 10 years world consumption has increased to a current level of 1.13 million tonnes.

On approximately 200,000 acres within a 100 mile radius of Fresno, within the San Joaquin Valley, raisin growers produce the totality of the US raisin stock. This year, current Californian production levels are expected to rise by 9% to around 350,000 tonnes.

Two-thirds of the U.S. raisin production is consumed in the U.S. and Canada, while one-third is exported to nearly 50 countries across the globe with Japan and the UK being the top two export markets.

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So how are raisins produced? – It takes about 4 ½ pounds of fresh grapes to make one pound of raisins. In early spring, tender blooms appear on the grapevines, and if weather cooperates, blooms turn into tiny grape bunches and growers irrigate their vineyards to encourage grape development. July is the hottest time of the year in the Valley, with temperatures exceeding 38 degrees C. The sun gradually turns the grapes sweeter and by August, the grapes are plump and full of sweetness.

In the traditional harvest method, ripe grapes are picked and placed on clean paper trays laid beside the vines. It normally takes two to three weeks of hot, dry September weather to turn the sweet green grapes into plump, tasty raisins. During drying, the hot sun bakes the vineyard floor, producing intense ground temperatures that caramelise the sugars in the grapes enough to give the raisins their distinctive flavour and colour. Sun Maid do exactly what it says on the box, the raisins are ‘Sun Made’.

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Land prices for land suitable for planting raisin grape vines within a 100 mile radius of Fresno have seen a dramatic increase within the last 10 year period, increasing from a low of just under $5,000 per acre (£3,850 per acre) to a current high of $30,000 per acre (£23,100). Competitiveness for nut growing orchards such as almonds and pistachios has helped drive the sharp increase.

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In addition to raisins, Sun Maid packs a full line of dried fruit, such as figs, dates, cranberries, apples, prunes, apricots and tropical fruits. Sun Maid also packs yogurt-covered raisins, such as those dipped in dark chocolate, vanilla, orange cream, strawberry and cherry flavored yogurt.

As consumer desire has increased for more snack based food, the company has adapted its offering far beyond the small red box that was all too familiar to me, and many of us, as part of our school packed lunch.

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