Third generation takes the wheel at Sunnyside Packing

By Terry Sokol


Brad and Todd Hirasuna are brothers working together at Sunnyside Packing in Selma, CA, a company that was founded by their grandfather in 1948 as a strawberry exchange.


Brad, 27 and a resident of Fresno, CA, graduated from the University of California-Los Angeles in 2002 with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and received his master's degree two years later in that discipline from the same institution.


Todd, 24, is a 2005 graduate of Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo with a bachelor's degree in agribusiness. He lives in Reedley.


Both brothers grew up working in the family business with their father, Stuart, and grandfather Fred.


"I've been back full time for about two years," said Todd, who works on the farming side of the operation. "I enjoy the production side of agriculture on a day-to-day basis. When I went to college, I didn't find anything I enjoyed more.


"I definitely enjoy being outside," he continued. "It's fun to me to plant something and raise it, take it from start to finish."


Brad, who worked at Sunnyside in high school and during part of his college years, came back full time in January 2006. "I was working in the aerospace industry for Raytheon in Los Angeles," he said. He first interned there in 2001 and worked for the company through 2005, when he decided to come back to the family business, where he now works as the general manager.


In addition to sales, "I'm doing a transition with my dad, working with vendors, clients and in human resources -- the true general manager job description," Brad said.


The brothers' father has been in the business since age 26. "He's 65 now, near the 40-year mark," said Brad, adding that Stuart Hirasuna is stepping back somewhat from the family business. "His true passion is the shop and mechanical stuff. All the farming stuff we break, he fixes - this allows him to do the stuff he likes. He's an old-school produce guy -- he'll never retire."


Grandfather Fred Hirasuna died about four years ago. "The last 10 years of his life, he still came down every day," Brad said. "He had a close attachment to our guard dogs and took care of them."


The brothers said that Sunnyside Packing markets about 1,200 acres to 1,500 acres of product, a combination of outside growers' and its own commodities. The majority of product is from outside growers, although in the last 10 years "we've taken on our own product," Brad said.


Sunnyside's line consists mostly of vegetables, with eggplant as "kind of our bread and butter," he said. "We do have a good size squash program and still handle a fair amount of cherry tomatoes, chili peppers, beans and bell peppers."


Todd noted that Sunnyside does onions as well and that the company strives for consistency in its pack.


Both brothers hit the road as part of their job responsibilities. Todd travels a fair amount each summer for the seed trials for new varieties that are up and coming. Unfortunately, that's during one of the company's busier times of year, but it's worth the sacrifice, they said.


For trade contacts, the brothers do the rounds of customers, most of whom are "in the Northwest and up and down California," Brad said. They are in constant contact with Sunnyside's growers, all of whom are within a 30- to 40-mile radius. "We see those growers definitely weekly, some of them daily," Brad said.


The brothers have fond memories and an appreciation of their youthful tenure in the family business.


Brad worked summers at Sunnyside from about age 16. "All my friends were going to the lake," he said, "but my dad said, 'If I give you this job, it's a commitment for all summer.' You had to work before you could play. I was in shipping helping to put orders together and helping print orders out on the computer."


Todd started working at about age 14 in shipping and receiving where he helped put together orders, pulled pallet tags, helped palletize consigned orders, wrote receiving orders and did some other paperwork. "Originally it was my dad's idea once I was old enough to drive to let me see the production side and see what it takes to get the product to the packinghouse," he said. "Working in that sector for a couple of summers, I liked that - I helped with the day-to-day stuff with our ranch manager."


Both young men developed a strong work ethic as a result of those early experiences.


"You work long hours doing very physical labor," Todd said of the farming side. "You have to sacrifice a lot of extracurricular fun stuff, but my opinion is that agriculture is one of the most honest ways you can make a living. It made me appreciate what my dad and grandpa who weren't around a lot during the summer [when the boys were growing up] were doing for us."


Brad concurred, noting that even when it isn't field labor, working in agriculture makes you realize "what a long day's labor was." He said that he developed an appreciation for "the people who are working for us for long hours and not for a lot of money. [You] appreciate everyone as a team that gets the product out of the field, properly cooled down and loaded and to the customer."


The brothers' youth has advantages and disadvantages, they agreed. "Being naive allows you to have a fresh perspective of how to attack a problem or form a strategy," Brad said. "The flip side is a lack of experience. But we work with people who have experience and can make a twist on that experience. And that's true in any job or field."


"Especially on the production side today you have to be very efficient, use new cultural practices," Todd said. Sometimes the older generation is resistant to that change, he said - and sometimes with good reason. "You might get very animated and excited to try something and sometimes you find out they've already tried it and it doesn't work," he said. "Our dad's philosophy has been to let us learn from our mistakes - unfortunately, you do make mistakes."


Production mishaps can contribute to the challenge. "A difficult day is one where you have a lot of orders to fill, but you might have a crew that doesn't show up or an equipment breakdown," Brad said. "Or any day you can't fill a customer's order. A very rewarding day is the day things runs smoothly, everything runs like clockwork. Those are the least stressful days."


Todd acknowledged that there are probably more frustrating days than good days. The most frustrating situation, he said, is bringing a crop to harvest and hitting a bad market or other unfavorable conditions. But the rewarding times are "the same situation with the opposite result," he said. "From my view there are good days."


The brothers find rewards outside work as well.


"One of the motivating factors for moving back to this area is you're in the middle of the state -- I can go to mountains, the ocean, San Francisco or Los Angeles easily," Brad said. "Local travel is the thing I like to do in my spare time."


Todd, who lives on Kings River, one of the major irrigation sources for farmers in the area, enjoys "floating down the river, any kind of water sport, jet skiing," he said.


He had been very involved in motorsport racing, but is currently taking a break from the demanding sport because of time constraints.


"I started racing go-carts from age eight to 14," Todd said. From age 14 to 23 he drove three-quarter-scale spring cars, mostly on local tracks. The boys' dad - the man who loves all things mechanical - had been involved in racing in his earlier days.


Looks like he put his sons on the right track in more ways than one.

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