In the News

By Don Schrack, Staff Writer

SELMA, Calif. -- It took just five hours to shatter the dreams of young Fred Hirasuna. Those same five hours would indirectly draft what was to become his life's work -- Sunnyside Packing Co. Inc., Selma, long a fixture of California's produce industry, now celebrating its 60th anniversary.

Hirasuna was a first-generation native Californian of Japanese descent, and a recent graduate of what was then Fresno State College. He had dreamed of a life in teaching. Then came those five hours of a Sunday morning in December 1941. The rain of bombs, bullets and torpedoes at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, locked Hirasuna out of his chosen career.
"A school superintendent told him there was no way he was going to get a job as a teacher," said grandson Todd Hirasuna.

Within months of the attack, Hirasuna moved his parents, his wife and their infant son to the Minnesota home of relatives. Japanese-Americans in the Midwest state were not subjected to relocation, because the then-U.S. Department of War had determined Minnesota was not a military-sensitive area.

Six years later, Hirasuna had ferried his family back to the San Joaquin Valley where he would plant the seeds of another dream. He and partners Minoru Omata and Morris Cocola founded Sunnyside Packing. As the coastal regions grew in stature as the state's prime vegetable-producing areas, the Fresno-based grower-shipper-marketer spent the next 30 years building a reputation for offering its customers quality vegetables.

By the 1970s, Hirasuna's son, Stuart Hirasuna, had his own college degree and was taking the reins of a company rapidly outgrowing its facilities on the west side of downtown Fresno. In 1977, Stuart Hirasuna moved Sunnyside Packing 15 miles south to Selma, where it continues as one of the major San Joaquin valley vegetable grower-shippers.

While Stuart Hirasuna remains involved, it is a third Hirasuna generation, sons Todd and Brad, who share the title of general manager and run day-to-day operations of family-owned and operated Sunnyside Packing. During the company's 60 years, there have been temporary excursions into stone fruit and strawberries.

In its formative years, Sunnyside Packing was a key member of a cooperative that was the state's third-largest strawberry producer, Todd Hirasuna said.

The cooperative dissolved in the 1980s. Today, the Sunnyside Packing inventory is limited to vegetables and melons.
"We're not trying to be everything for everybody," Todd Hirasuna said. "We do what we do best, what we're known for."

What Sunnyside Packing does best is eggplant, a wide variety of squash, green beans, red and green bell peppers, red onions, cherry tomatoes and a comprehensive assortment of chili peppers -- in all, more than 25 commodities.
It is an April-through-November inventory, packed under the company's Calway and Truway labels. The original label, Calway, has been redesigned in honor of Sunnyside Packing's 60th year. A third label, Sunway, signals the company's 2007 entry into organic commodities.

"We now have about 10% of our acreage in organic vegetables," Todd Hirasuna said. "That's an increase over 2007, but we're still in a feeling-our-way period."

Organic vegetables available this season from Sunnyside Packing include eggplant, summer and winter squash, green beans and green bell peppers.

The company farms its own 600 acres. It also packs and markets vegetables from another 1,200-plus acres owned by other San Joaquin Valley growers, many of whom have been with Sunnyside Packing for years, Todd Hirasuna said.
Sunnyside Packing designed and commissioned the construction of mechanical harvesters for eggplant and squash, he said. The two-level, self-propelled harvesters enable workers to pick, wash and pack in the field. Ozone-injected cold storage rooms at the Selma headquarters hold the newly packed vegetables before shipping.

The company's conventionally grown season openers were zucchini and yellow and gray squash in April with sweet onions following in early May, Todd Hirasuna said. Next off will be green beans in mid-May followed by eggplant in early June, chili peppers in mid-June and, then, green bell peppers.

"I'm especially proud of our squash and eggplant," Todd Hirasuna said. "We've become known for their quality."
The 2007 volume for Sunnyside Packing was just more than 1 million cartons, said Donnie Blanton, director of sales.
"Weather permitting, we'll do at least that volume this year," he said.

With Blanton on the sales staff are president Stuart Hirasuna and chief executive officer Wes Kubo, who does double-duty as director of quality.

"Combined, we have more than 70 years of produce sales experience," Blanton said.

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