Next time you eat a grape, think about the flavor, texture and appearance and then think about Sun World International (SWI) because your grape’s origins likely began there.
SWI is one of the world’s largest and oldest fruit breeding and licensing companies with offices in in the United States, Europe, Australia, South America, Israel, and South Africa and with 20,000 hectares (49,000 acres) under license with over 2,000 growers worldwide.
The company was founded in the mid-1970s and is dedicated to variety development and commercialization of proprietary varieties for the seedless table grape and stone fruit industries.
SWI’s variety development center is located in Wasco, CA where they have breeding programs for table grapes and stone fruit. They are using four greenhouses and a shade house manufactured by Agra Tech of Pittsburg, CA and constructed by AgCon of San Jose, CA.
For more than 30 years, SWI has become a household name for grape producers, marketers, retailers and consumers with innovative fruit breeding and maintains a network of licensed growers and marketers worldwide who covet the finest table grapes available.
SWI’s Vice President of Variety Development, Terry Bacon recently discussed the company’s evolution and its first big victory right out of the gate. “We started with fruit breeding in the early 1980’s and our first variety, Sugraone (SUPERIOR SEEDLESS®) was the most widely planted proprietary table grape for many years,” he said. “In 2018 we sold off the farming part of the business to focus on breeding, licensing and ag-tech development.”
Today, SWI holds plant patents on 44 table grape varieties and 86 stone fruit varieties but most of the company’s licensing activity presently consists of six table grape varieties: Sugraone (SUPERIOR SEEDLESS® brand), Sugrathirteen (MIDNIGHT BEAUTY®), Sugrasixteen (SABLE®), Sugranineteen (SCARLOTTA®), Sugrathirtyfour (ADORA®), and Sugrathirtyfive (AUTUMNCRISP®).
Creating the finest grapes on the planet is SWI’s unwavering mission. “Our focus is changing toward the development of new varieties with sustainability and distinctive flavor in mind,” Bacon said. “We are developing new varieties that require very little labor or chemical input and varieties that have natural disease resistance so they can more readily be grown organically. Table grapes are a very labor-intensive crop, requiring trellising to grow on and intensive hand labor for canopy management and crop manipulation.”
Relocating to a new farm to establish its new variety development center included the construction of a new lab facility and greenhouses made by Agra Tech. SWI had been using an old facility that included Agra Tech greenhouses that were more than 40 years.
“We grew out of the lab facility at a former location, but the greenhouses were still in great shape and could continue on another 40 years if you were to replace the panels on them,” Bacon explained. “We went with Agra Tech’s Solar Light model, built joined together with gutters at 12 ft. We had the team at Agra Tech design a series of specialized benches for one of the greenhouses and for another of the structures they are building a vestibule connected to the front, so that we can certify it as a 100% pest-free facility.”
SWI’s new greenhouses have all of the latest technology and Bacon and his team are learning how to use it all to be more effective overall. “We are getting used to the digital controls for the cooling, heating and lights; the old greenhouse controls were very analogue. We use the greenhouses mainly to grow seedlings from our crosses in our breeding programs, so the main growing season is fall/winter and we use sodium lights to extend daylight and keep the seedlings growing actively. One of the greenhouses is specially designed for seedlings coming out of tissue culture. The plantlets are very tender, with no cuticle to protect them from harsh sunlight or heat, so they have to be carefully acclimated at first. One side of that greenhouse is a mist bench, that’s where they start out. And the greenhouse itself has built-in 46% shade that can be opened and closed as needed.
The customer service provided by Agra Tech gets five stars, according to Bacon. “Jim Bergantz at Agra Tech has been our rep since the beginning. He was very proactive early-on, reaching out to us regularly, making sure he understood our needs, and holding our hand the entire way. We knew very little about modern greenhouses--what kind of skins, shading, new technologies were being used commercially. Plus, we were already overwhelmed with getting the new farm up and running and building the new lab and office facility, with the specialized needs of a molecular lab, tissue culture lab and post-harvest lab. We benefited greatly from Jim’s experience and guidance. And he understood the ins and outs of permitting, government regulations, things to watch out for, and what to expect timing-wise
Ag Con was contracted to build the greenhouses to make sure the construction went seamlessly and completed on-time—considering the effects of the pandemic. “Ray Pound with Ag Con is extremely knowledgeable and easy to work with,” Bacon said. “They were very professional and knew exactly what they were doing. The construction was scheduled to begin in the Spring of 2020, but the factory that makes the structural parts was forced to shut down during the COVID19 outbreak. Once the lockdown was lifted, construction started right away and they stayed on it for the two months that it took to build them. The crew communicated with us well during construction and we trusted them even if they were working late after the rest of us were gone.”
In conclusion, SWI’s relationship with Agra Tech has been a sweet experience. “Overall, we are very pleased with the experience we had with Agra Tech and the quality of their greenhouses and shade house. I can’t imagine working with someone else if you need someone with experience and that will hold your hand and guide you all the way.”
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Working with Agra Tech’s Sales Engineer Jim Bergantz throughout the entire planning process was also a major plus, Breen said. “He was so professional and knowledgeable, he was great. Jim knows the industry and his company’s products very well, and communicated well with us during every stage to make sure that we got exactly what we wanted for our application.”
Nutrien Ag Solutions
Director of Research and Development