To change with the times and integrate some of the most innovative systems and processes in the greenhouse growing industry today into their operation, Sunridge Nurseries of Bakersfield, CA embarked on a large greenhouse expansion that started earlier this year. With greenhouses and accessories from Agra Tech and construction provided by AgCon, Sunridge Nurseries is entering a new age of mechanization as they continue their role as one of the largest producers of grape stocks in the world. Sunridge currently sells to grape growers that are as far away as Brazil, Peru, and Namibia–pretty much anywhere that does not have a quarantine situation relative to importing plant material.
COO Tom Bracken at Sunridge Nurseries has been at the helm of this $5 million project since day one and is delighted to see that it has gone seamlessly. “We all know our roles here and we work methodically as a team,” he said. “Our Shop Foreman/Construction Manager Abel Martinez has been working closely with AgCon, Inc. to build 35 new greenhouses in five different sizes and it’s a mixed crew–with some of our people and several from AgCon. We have all worked together closely on greenhouse construction and design projects in the past, so it’s become like second nature at this point.”
Sunridge Nurseries has a long and fruitful history. After years of experience in the grape nursery stock industry, Glen and Terrie Stoller founded Sunridge Nurseries 40 years ago. Sunridge Nurseries’ main business is the propagation and grafting of grape nursery rootstock. Subsequently, the nursery is now considered to be a pioneer in the development of scientific techniques and cultural practices and a major expert in this field.
In the 1980s, phylloxera began to invade premier wine grape vineyards in Sonoma and the Napa Valley, so Sunridge came up with the solution in concert with U.C. Davis, which is high quality, phylloxera-resistant rootstocks. Since then, Sunridge has been supplying only the finest rootstocks to its customers through several expansions and additions to their modern, state-of-the-art facilities over the years.
Located at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley, Sunridge is a family-owned corporation and today Glen and Terrie’s son, Craig Stoller, is the CEO of the company. The nursery has the advantage of phylloxera-free sandy soils with a long growing season. With more than 600 acres of certified rootstock, scionwood increase blocks and outdoor nursery blocks, Sunridge is well positioned to produce certified benchgrafts and rootings to meet its expanding customer needs. The nursery’s growing, grafting and storage facilities now total more than 300,000 square feet.
Featuring hundreds of different varieties of wine and table grape vines, Sunridge produces approximately 10 million rootstalks annually, making them a leader in the industry. “We have patented 25 different table grape varieties and breeding others all the time,” Bracken said. “The market for table grapes has changed tremendously within the last few years and our customers are growing them right now all over the world. New flavors, sizes and shapes are coming up all the time and in fact, we have one now that tastes just like cotton candy. So, it’s definitely an exciting time in table grape production and we’re happy to be right in the middle of it.”
When the cost of doing business started skyrocketing, Sunridge began looking for ways to cut expenses, which prompted the new expansion project. “It’s getting really expensive to do business and still make a profit. We used to have a $7.50 hourly minimum wage five years ago and in four more years, it will be at $15 an hour, Bracken said. “We want people to earn a fair wage, but the reality is that all of our costs have gone up considerably. So, what we’re trying to do is take a very active approach in minimizing labor inputs, which means that we are trying to mechanize as much we possibly can. All of our plants obviously have to be watered and we had sprinklers in our existing greenhouses, but now we have water booms that move from one end of the greenhouse to the other and provide us with a very measured, controlled water delivery apparatus. We will have automatic mowers now as well, so that we can deliver uniform plants to our customers. In the past, all of the mowing was manual as well as all of our irrigation and now we can do it with one-tenth of the people that we needed before.”
Bracken is delighted with the project and happy to be working with Agra Tech again. “We go way back with Agra Tech and all of our greenhouses are from ATI, so when the time came for us to discuss this project 18 months ago, ATI was the only company we considered,” he said. “We are very happy with them and their entire team, because they bring so much knowledge and design skills to the table.”
Written by Ed Attanasaio