A lot can happen in the prune business over 100 years.
You can lose your biggest export market in the run-up to World War II, yet rally in the postwar era to see almost half of your product shipped abroad.
Your prunes can seem lost amid California’s massive agriculture industry, but a 21st century surge boosts annual sales to around $325 million.
You watch your product go from being perceived as a staple for senior citizens to an emerging go-to snack for health-conscious millennials.
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That’s only part of the story of Sunsweet Growers, marking its centennial this year in Yuba City, where its headquarters includes 1.2 million square feet under roof – the largest plum-processing center on the planet and employing more than 700. The nearly 300-grower entity also touts itself as the largest dried fruit cooperative in the world.
“I think for most of us, it’s the underdog fruit,” said Dane Lance, Sunsweet’s president and CEO. “It’s something that’s absolutely natural, preservative free … and the healthy attributes are known in a time frame where people are looking at ways to manage their health.”
Lance is quick to note that prunes, and especially Sunsweet’s popular prune juice brand, were long regarded as products for older consumers. Much of that was linked to prunes’ high fiber content, making them a natural laxative.
That also provided material for 1960s to ’70s-era comedians, including Johnny Carson. Among the multiple prune juice jokes Carson made as his on-air character Carnac the Magnificent: “What do you call a drink made with un-cola and prune juice?” “Unleash.”
Things have changed. Lance said Sunsweet’s market studies show that “we’re getting much more traction in the 15 to 25 age group, and “Sunsweet Ones,” individually wrapped pitted prunes, are extremely popular in the 25 to 35 age group. Young consumers like prunes’ portability, fat-free content and low calories count of 100 per serving.
However, Sunsweet also touts good news for older consumers: Studies have noted prunes’ contribution to bone health, a byproduct of potassium, magnesium and vitamin K in the dried plum product.
Today, Sunsweet’s numbers are eye-popping: producing 40,000 cases of fruit/juice daily and processing 60,000 tons of prunes a year, accounting for 25 percent of the global market. Forty percent of the product is exported aboard.
Yet officials note that Sunsweet was at a crossroads at the turn of the millennium, with its 15-member board often in conflict on how best to proceed on issues of crop growth, economics and marketing. Cooperative officials credit grower and longtime Sunsweet Chairman Gary Thiara with turning things around.
Thiara recalled that back in 2001, he had been on the Sunsweet board only a year when he was named chairman at age 33. Back then, he said the board had “factions” that tended to vote as a geographic block.
“I really didn’t belong to any faction. We had family farms up and down the entire state, from Tulare to Chico, so I was everybody’s neighbor. I had good friendships everywhere,” Thiara said.
Thiara’s solution was “to make structural changes” and “run this co-op like a business.” Along that line, the board was reduced in size to 10 members and set annual goals based on a 12-month calendar, not seasonal plans. The board also planned to avoid wild swings in crop prices, working to negate an oversupply of product on the market.
In 2001, Sunsweet growers were getting about $700 a ton for their crop. Today, they’re getting about $2,500 a ton.
“It was an incredible experience, but the credit really goes to the growers,” Thiara said. “And yes, it was work, but looking back, it was also a lot of fun.”
Thiara’s leadership was so effective that the board kept waiving Sunsweet’s term-limit bylaws. That changed last month when Sunsweet announced that Vice Chairman Brendon Flynn would succeed Thiara, enabling the latter to oversee his family’s extensive ag operations.
Both Lance and Thiara marvel at Sunsweet’s 100-year existence, given the changes in food production and the political/economic landscape over that span.
For example, Sunsweet’s top export market before World War II was Germany, but that changed under Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime, which insisted that the nation be the primary producer of its own food.
Various crop disasters – created by drought, floods and fire – dotted Sunsweet’s history, along with periodic economic downturns.
Lance said Sunsweet’s long history is a testament to its “commitment to quality.” He said he’s often amazed by the co-op’s continued growth in an endeavor “where Mother Nature often throws you a curveball.”
The prune facts
- 1850s – Failing to strike it rich in the California Gold Rush, Louis Pellier imports prune orchard stock from France to California, introducing the crop to the Santa Clara Valley and ultimately earning him the moniker “father of California prunes.”
- 1917 – What would later become the Sunsweet Growers cooperative is founded as the California Prune and Apricot Growers Association.
- 1932 – Sunsweet prune juice is introduced.
- 1955 – Boxes of tenderized, ready-to-eat prunes appear in U.S. grocery stores.
- 1958 – The name Sunsweet Growers Inc. is formally adopted.
- 1965 – The Sunsweet pitting process is patented, opening the door for the tooth-safe pitted prune.
- 1975 – Sunsweet opens what will become its international headquarters in Yuba City.
- 1994 – Sunsweet’s Yuba City facilities expands to 1.2 million square feet, making it the largest plum-processing center in the world.
- 2006 – Sunsweet Ones, individually wrapped prunes, are launched. Over the next decade, a billion are consumed in the United States.
- 2017 – Sunsweet Growers marks it centennial year with a “Growing Together” theme.
Source: Sunsweet Growers