Q&A: Suntreat takes sweet to a new level with Sumo Citrus, its pairing with vineyards

October 15 , 2018

From the pages of Produce Business UK

Mandarins have taken retail by storm over the past few years. One company based in the United States has been at the forefront of the resurgence.

Suntreat Packing & Shipping Co., located in the San Joaquin Valley in California, has been in the citrus business for 60 years, providing some of the finest navels, lemons and other fruits to consumers in the United States and Canada. 

One of the more unique varieties it offers is the Sumo Citrus, a rare mandarin that is often called “the most delicious piece of citrus you’ll ever eat.” This easy-peeler, which has sold in Japan for as much as $15 per piece, has a bumpy, bright orange skin, is seedless and bursting with flavor.

Daniel Kass, vice president of sales, marketing and business development for Suntreat/Columbine Vineyards, says he can’t wait to talk about the company’s prized fruit, along with other developments, at this year’s Amsterdam Produce Summit (12-14 November), where they will be exhibiting for the first time. 

“We are excited to introduce the EU market to Sumo Citrus and Columbine Vineyards‘ Holiday Seedless grapes that are just coming into season in California,” says Kass. “I’ve been dealing with the EU market for over 30 years and looking forward to the reaction of many colleagues to our flagship brands and varieties under the Agriculture Capital Foods umbrella.”

With a recent acquisition between Suntreat and Columbine Vineyards under wraps earlier this year, Produce Business UK sat down with Kass and Amanda Steele, CMO for AC Foods, to discuss the ins and outs of their business practice and their views on trends affecting the industry, while also outlining some of Suntreat’s and Columbine Vineyards’ innovations and initiatives.  

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They say California citrus is the best in the world. How can we be so sure? What are the elements, unique selling points of Suntreat, for example?

California has an ideal climate for growing citrus, and it has been home to oranges, lemons and citrons since the first Spanish missionaries began cultivating it here in the 1700s. Indeed, most of the families who grow citrus for Suntreat today have been doing so for generations. And though it is a long-standing industry, in true California fashion, it is always improving and innovating. New technologies, new varieties and growing demand from global markets make this an exciting time to be in citrus.  

In particular, California surpassed Florida in terms of overall crop produced for the first time in modern history just this year. We’ve historically dominated in the fresh market in the United States, but California continues to grow supply. 

The majority of California’s citrus production is oranges, including varieties of navel oranges and Valencia oranges, but we’ve seen an interesting trend wherein consumers are continuing to demand ever more mandarins. To keep up with that demand, California farmers are continuing to plant more and more mandarins and specialty citrus crops. 

Suntreat has uniquely catered its offerings to supply not only the best navels to the global market, but has a unique set of specialty citrus items, including mandarins, as well. We have invested heavily in technology at our packing shed. Our navel orange line, for example, takes 68 photos of every single orange, and a Brix and Acid sensor can tell us the exact flavor profile of each piece of fruit that we sell. We can tailor taste profile to suit any customer. The result is that we can guarantee fruit quality to our customers, and our growers receive the best value for each and every single piece of fruit they produce. 

We try our best not to waste a single piece.

Also, we are also the only shipper to supply the legendary Sumo Citrus (below).

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Let’s talk about competition: Are there any companies you can reference as clear competitors? 

When it comes to specialty mandarins like the Sumo Citrus, the Suki Mandarin and the Lee Nova mandarin, we truly have no competition. We’re the only entity packing and selling Sumo Citrus, and our unique ability to handle those exceptionally delicate pieces of fruit are without parallel. It is a capability we have been developing for more than a decade.

On the navel side, we compete every day with other major citrus shippers in California, but customers are beginning to notice our fruit quality and varietal availability as truly differentiated in the market. We’re a mid-sized packer in California, but we’ve continued to grow along with the demand for our fruit. 

As a Suntreat grower, you are part of the Suntreat family that spans generations of California citrus growers. Could you share with us some details about the generations and the history of Suntreat? 

Harry and John Griffith, originally from Kansas, came to California after the Great Depression. After starting some farms, they entered the packing and marketing side of the business with Suntreat in the 1960s. Later, their sons took over the business and created meaningful vertical integration by bringing on a commercial nursery, TreeSource, and two large citrus ranches in Woodlake and Strathmore. 

Suntreat remains piece of a vertically integrated business that includes TreeSource and the original farm land. Suntreat, TreeSource and the farmland were purchased in 2015 by Agricultural Capital, a fund investing on behalf of American and international pensioners and investors. Since the acquisition, we’ve added quite a bit more in terms of technology, team and acreage, but that that pioneering spirit and the ability to control the business all the way from seed to fork remain intact (even if most of our fruit is seedless!) 

What is the way that you get your crop to market? In terms of efficiency and profitability?

Getting our crop to market is a year-round process. Our field teams spend considerable time before, during and after the season with the growers, assuring quality and size specifications are being met. We then work to estimate the optimum ripeness on each field, monitoring fruit quality closely until our staff determines it is time to pick. We then arrange for picking crews and transport crews, which are specially trained by our staff for items like Sumo Citrus and Suki mandarins, to carefully deliver the fruit to our packing house door in Dinuba, California. From there, it falls into the hands of our operations team managers, where fruit is carefully sorted, cleaned and packed.

We give up some efficiencies when it comes to our mandarins, which are carefully hand-packed, with each single piece of fruit checked by an individual for optimum quality control. We believe this attention to detail produces a fruit quality which really delights the consumer.

In terms of marketing, how would you describe this process? From packing to the final integrated marketing of it? 

Suntreat is capable of packing oranges, grapefruit, other specialty citrus, stone fruit, and pomegranate, including custom-packing capabilities for clients in need. We can pack into a variety of styles, including tri-walls, bags, gift packs and cartons of various sizes.

We offer for sale a broad suite of citrus products, including high brix navels, Blood oranges, Valencias and items you can’t find anywhere else, such as Suki Mandarins, I’m Pink Cara Cara Oranges, Sumo Citrus and Lee Nova mandarins. We’re also excited to announce we’ve recently partnered with an Australian packing shed, and are active in building out our supply year-round.

For the upcoming season, we are investing in a comprehensive integrated marketing program utilizing social media, web presence, shopper marketing and merchandising support to help our customers increase the velocity of sales in their produce departments. We specialize in premium citrus fruit which attracts a premium price, which can provide customers with differentiation in their produce departments. 

What about the pack-out reports that are designed to show traceability from grove to the carton. How is this monitored and assessed?

Suntreat has invested heavily in traceability. Each bin is tagged in the field, and each piece of fruit is tracked as it moves through our pack line, allowing Suntreat to view from the grove, to the line, to the very pallet on which it is shipped. This has been a priority since the Agriculture Capital acquisition, as we believe it provides better insight and quality control across the value chain. 

As cited on your website, Suntreat supplies citrus to major retailers throughout the United States and Canada. This includes everything from large grocery chains to independent grocers. Do you have any favorites? Any stories that stand out with major retailers?

We’ve had a strong partnership with many retailers, one of which is Whole Foods.  Last year, one of their buyers gave our Sumo Citrus growers a big shout out at our annual grower meeting. It was a fantastic opportunity to connect our customers and our growers, and we loved the direct feedback. We’re looking forward to launching our first ever “Sumo Citrus Academy” this year where we’ll give tours of our farms, our facilities and our nursery. 

Suntreat also makes a strong claim that whether the customer purchases 500 cartons or 500,000, you are able to accommodate the individual needs of each buyer, based on volume, variety, grade and packaging. How is this done exactly?   

We know each customer has unique needs, and we believe we have the technological capability, the human capital and decades’ worth of experience on our team to best service each of them. We pack over 8,000 acres of citrus in California, with availability from the earliest part of the season through the latest part of the season, and our sales team works very hard to accommodate each buyer. We’ve recently brought on a new Executive Vice President of Sales and Marketing, Rick Johnston, who is focusing on best in class service. We’re still in the midst of our first citrus season in Australia, working to expand our export opportunities there. 

What sort of innovation has happened over the years? Any new technology developed?

Everything from the nursery, to farming, packing and selling has evolved. On the farm side, we’re experimenting in new geographies; we’ve been able to make our irrigation systems more efficient; and we’re working with trellis systems, shade cloths and rain covers to reduce inputs and improve quality. We’ve automated much of our nursery system, and our new Legacy line improved production from 80 to 150 bins per hour this year while keeping quality high.

Do you have any recent news on this that you would like to highlight?

There has been a lot of news as we continue to build out our capabilities. We are continuing to build our citrus business to be truly global. This is also the first year we believe we will have commercial scale Sumo Citrus production, which is an exciting next step in developing that global brand.

What is your view on agri-tech innovations and their role in the citrus industry?

We believe agri-tech innovations are enabling the farmer to make better decisions for his or her land in real-time. From the ability to monitor all aspects of farming, including one’s fleet, temperatures in the field and labor force, agri-tech is helping citrus stay ahead of the curve. We’ve experimented with and are working to implement new technology for crop estimation, quality control in the pack shed, traceability and water utilization. 

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Let’s talk about the recent Columbine Vineyards acquisition. How did the whole move come about? 

Agriculture Capital was founded by farmers and food business executives, focused on building vertically integrated food businesses that delight customers at scale and truly adds value back to the communities in which it operates. Columbine Vineyards, with a breeding program, unique varietals, significant cold storage capabilities, a thoughtful community engagement programs and a world class-sales team, was a natural fit into that vertically integrated vision. Agriculture Capital and the Columbine family had been in talks nearly two years before deciding it was the right move for both parties. 

How has it unfolded since?

So far Agriculture Capital and Columbine Vineyards have made a lot of great moves forward. Together, we’ve improved some irrigation, shared best practices in both the field and in the sales offices, and, we will be beginning a meaningful transition to much of our acreage to organic over the next few years. It is a capital-intensive move that requires a lot of know-how, but it’s important to our customers and to our land, so we’re excited to utilize the broader Agriculture Capital network to accomplish this.

How would you say that this acquisition is different and unique? How does it fit into the overall vision and strategy? 

This acquisition was different because of scale and crop. Agriculture Capital was already a significant farmer in the area, and the team already had significant past experience in table grapes, but this is the first foray into table grapes, which is really a specialty business. Whereas in other Agriculture Capital crop categories, AC has had to build pieces of the total crop vertical, it already existed in full in Columbine. The exciting opportunity now is to expand the groundwork already tested and true at Columbine into a global business. We are excited to expand on the company’s breeding program, leverage the expertise of the team to grow grapes in new geographies, contemplate automation and become a one-stop shop for grape buyers around the world. 

In addition, two of the main tenants of Agriculture Capital are to be both thoughtful stewards of the land, and to improve the communities in which it operates. This is espoused in their “EATS” values: excellence, accountability, transparency and stewardship. Columbine Vineyards fit the mold, having a well-developed community program upon which the organization can expand. 

Since Columbine Vineyard is prided as a family business for more than 90 years, what have been the general thoughts of the acquisition from its founders? 

In many ways, Columbine remains a family business, and some family members remain vital team members there today. Much of what has made Columbine a success for nearly a century is its people, its involvement in the community, and the pride in its product. These are qualities that we hold dear, and more so hope we can expand upon them with the expansion capital and industry knowledge of our new owner.

What are some of the unique selling points of the vineyards? Has this changed since the acquisition? 

In terms of uniqueness, it’s easiest to point to our three proprietary varieties: the Milano, a massive, mid-season green; the Black Globe, a beautiful, seeded and large grape highly sought after in several Asian markets; and the favorite Holiday grape: a high-brix red with a fantastic flavor profile. We’re testing another dozen or so proprietary varieties every year. 

And particular to the various grape varieties? You have 15 cited. Is that correct?

In addition to these, we sell over 14 additional varieties of reds, greens and black grapes. Following the acquisition, we expect to become a source of even more varieties throughout the year, not to mention converting to organic. 

The Columbine Grape Breeding Program seems a very innovative breeding methodology. Could you tell us how that started and how it has grown?

Breeding to best accommodate the land and to produce a truly superior-tasting product that is unique in the market place has become an increasingly important method by which to draw customers into the store. Columbine has nearly 6,000 acres of grapes across California’s Central Valley, and each plot of land can produce different characteristics in a grape. Columbine’s founders had an affinity for breeding as a means by which to differentiate themselves in the market place, even working with an Argentinean breeder to test varieties across two seasons, effectively doubling the time to commercialization. Holiday and the other proprietary varieties came to the market through this testing. Today, the primary breeding operations are at our headquarters in Delano, California, and we foresee some exciting times ahead for that program as we look to expand geographically.

What would you say are the biggest challenges facing the grape industry in this year and the years to come?

Of course, as farmers, we will always be subject to the whims of mother nature and are always finding more ways to better utilize what the earth and sun provide to us every year. This year the grape industry was off to a rough start as a summer storm hampered much of the earliest volume that typically comes out of Mexico, which put California’s central valley off to a delayed start on the sales side. Regulation, water and labor are issues we consistently are working through: they remain a challenge for the entire industry, across all of California’s crops. 

What are some of the trends that you see? Your website highlights a fair amount about grape phytonutrients. Are nutrients becoming more emphasized? Packaging ideas? Grape variety? Where is the focus for grapes today?   

I think we will continue to see the industry react to consumer’s shifting desires, in particular the demand for healthy and convenient snacks. New pack styles, new flavors, the shift to convenient and healthy snacking, all bodes well for table grape demand into the future, which continues to grow across the globe. Numerous health studies have shown that consumption of table grapes is good for the whole self and has even been linked to cancer prevention. Plus, many varieties today are so unapologetically delicious. Why grab a candy bar when you can grab a bunch of grapes? We just have to be better about making it easier for the consumer to get his or her hands on grapes throughout the day. 

Consumer research shows some interesting trends. For example, did you know that grapes are mostly an adult snack? We’ve also seen research that consumers favor California-grown grapes. The industry’s focus on food safety and quality makes grapes from California a really attractive program for consumers. We need to continue to educate consumers about all the benefits from grapes. 

Let’s talk about another one of your program: Columbine Cares program? What is the basic ethos around it and how has this developed over the years?

Columbine Vineyards realizes that healthy agriculture fosters healthy communities. We have seen the importance of staying active in the community, and donating money, equipment and grapes to schools, food banks, hospitals and nonprofit organizations. We have provided scholarships, contributed to sports teams and provided musical instruments for our local schools.

We also created a customized education program, “Growing Up Grape” for elementary students, which brings California table grapes to the forefront of future generations.

Our hope is to see our local youth gain life skills and encourage young people to understand and participate in the food system as informed citizens. Our grapes are sold across the world, so we raise our fruit with the notion that by acting responsibly in our local space and community, we are contributing to the health of the world.

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