Written by The Business Journal Staff
Todd Hirasuna, General Manager,
What we do: We are a third generation grower, shipper of vegetables here in the San Joaquin Valley. The crops we grow and handle include eggplant, squashes (summer and winter), green beans, bell peppers, onions, hot peppers, cherry and grape tomatoes and an assortment of Asian vegetable items.
Education: Raised in the Fresno Unified School system, graduated high school from Bullard. Obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in Agricultural Business from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.
What’s the history of Sunnyside Packing, Todd?
In 1948, my grandfather Fred Hirasuna and two partners founded Sunnyside. At the time, there were hundreds of small family farmers. This was before the advent of commercial refrigeration so getting perishable commodities to the marketplace was imperative. Sunnyside effectively organized the many farmers by packing and marketing their fruit under company-owned brands/labels. By pooling the growers together, larger volumes allowed for greater bargaining power by expanding the customer base the growers were able to sell their product to. Over the years, we started a growing operation of our own and still currently represent a handful of family farmers in the marketplace.
What brought you to the family business, Todd?
Like most young adults, I really had no idea what profession I wanted to pursue. Pediatric medicine, art/architecture/landscape design all crossed my mind at one point or another. As weird as it sounds today, not until my latter high school years was I really ever exposed to our growing operation. From day one on the farm, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. Being vertically integrated as we are, I had always worked in other aspects of the business but never the farming side of things. In agriculture, everything starts on the farm. Without the crops being harvested nothing else happens. Seeing a crop from start to finish, hard work, dedication to your craft and the innate characteristic of room for constant improvement within the agricultural industry fit me to a tee.
What are the biggest challenges of your industry, Todd?
Not only is agriculture a unique industry but California agriculture is exceptionally unique. Our climate is really what makes California agriculture thrive the way it does by allowing for so many crops to be grown here. The cost of doing business in California puts us at a competitive disadvantage so beyond the well-known challenges (water, labor, etc.), our biggest challenge is increasingly how do we stay competitive and relevant in the current and future business environment. The fresh produce industry is becoming increasingly global so the proverbial million-dollar question is always “how do I as a California producer compete with not only neighboring states but neighboring countries as well?” Our per package break-even cost closely follows what the minimum wage is at the time. In a few short years when minimum wage increases to $15/hour, are consumers willing to pay at least double for California product when they can buy product from out of state or from another country for far less? Realistically the answer is no, so how do we reposition ourselves to be able to continue to add value to the supply chain so that we can make a living and the consumer can afford the food in the grocery store?
What are the biggest rewards?
The two biggest rewards on every farmer’s list are: 1) Witnessing first-hand the culmination of the endless amounts of time, effort and resources put into growing their crops; in layman terms, seeing the end result (the harvest) of all your hard work and, 2) Feeling as though what we do as an industry is appreciated and valued. Being able to interact with the end consumer or even receiving an occasional “thank you” or listening to someone who bought your product to feed their family tell you how much they enjoyed it. We do what we do in order to feed people safe, wholesome and delicious food products so receiving that occasional reaffirmation is always appreciated.
What do you see in the future for Central Valley agriculture, Todd?
A changing landscape and a large reduction in the number of different crops grown here is what I see. Labor-intensive crops will relocate out of state or to foreign soil where labor costs aren’t so great. Growers will continue to gravitate towards crops that can be planted, farmed and harvested with virtually no human involvement. Technology will continue to play a greater role in our industry as a means to mitigate increasing labor and business costs.
What was the best advice you ever received, Todd?
When I was in high school, I used to drive my grandfather to and from work in the summertime. On one of our many drives together, he said “Never close your ears to the outside world; never stop learning. The minute you think you know everything you’ve lost. In order to be the best you know that you can be, never stop trying to learn and better yourself.”
What was your very first job growing up and what did you learn from it?
As soon as I was old enough to obtain a worker’s permit, I asked my dad for a job. His response was, “I’ll give you a job but it’s a commitment for the full summer. No taking unscheduled days off, no going to the lake with your friends on a whim…. if you’re going to work for me you’re going to follow the same rules everyone else does.” It taught me a strong work ethic and the value of a dollar. In most cases, you truly can be as successful as you want to be. The day is done when the work you need to do has been completed. It’s a competitive world; sometimes you get lucky but hard work and dedication to your craft will take you much further in life.
What do you like to do in your spare time, Todd?
In our line of work, it’s hard to come by! Self admittedly I’m a workaholic so there isn’t a day that goes by that I’m not doing something for work. In between, rest and relaxation is at the top of my list. I enjoy cooking so experimenting in the kitchen is something I enjoy. I enjoy playing golf but I’m not a good golfer. Live entertainment is something I enjoy also; I’m up for a sporting event or a concert any chance I get!