Business

Friday, Nov 16 2012 12:00 PM

Huge citrus plant speaks to cuties demand, Kern's draw

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Automated sorting of cuties takes place at the new processing plant in Delano.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Cuties are ready for packaging at the new Cutie processing plant in Delano.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Cuties are rolled into a processing line at a Cutie processing plant in Bakersfield in this November 2012 file photo.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Gabriel Luna, left, and Stephanie Landa monitor the pack line from one of the computerized control rooms at the Cutie plant in Delano.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Packaged Cuties are loaded on pallets and identified for shipping at the Cuties plant in Delano.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    David Krause, president of Paramount Citrus.

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BY JOHN COX Californian staff writer jcox@bakersfield.com

This is what having confidence in your product looks like:

A gigantic, 500-employee packing plant measuring more than 640,000 square feet -- enough to hold 11 football fields.

A four-lane, 310-foot-long sorter-conveyor said to be the largest of its kind on the planet.

A fully computerized tracking system that scans, weighs and records every one of the roughly 10 million individual units coming down the line every day six months a year.

Roll Global, a company known for its nuts and pomegranates, built the plant because it expects big things of its new star product, the cutie, a seedless, easy-to-peel citrus fruit a little bigger than a golf ball.

While the product's meteoric rise is remarkable in its own right, what makes it a cause for celebration locally is that, on Friday in Delano, Roll unveiled its largest-ever investment, a state-of-the-art cuties packing plant two years in the making.

Encouraging investment

To local observers the plant is further evidence that Kern County has become a place for bold projects strategically situated and heavily staffed.

They point to other large food processing plants in the county and more recently built distribution centers near the Grapevine that are growing the region's reputation as a destination for big investment.

"Some of the most astute investors in the world are choosing to invest here," said Wayne Kress, director and principal at Cushman & Wakefield / Pacific Commercial Realty Advisors in Bakersfield.

"These are world-leading things that sometimes I think we might take for granted right here," he said.

Not Melinda Brown. As director of business development at Kern Economic Development Corp., she lauded the packing plant as an employment engine and a property tax boon that could make a "huge statement" to others considering investing locally.

The executive director of the Kern County Farm Bureau, Ben McFarland, said the project combines nicely with productive agricultural acreage nearby and the region's central location.

"Paramount obviously has made a commitment and an investment in this community because the people, the growing ability, the logistics are there and they're working in sync," he said.

"It's a strong indication of what the future of agriculture has for Kern County."

State of the art

The plant itself is something of a technological marvel.

Visitors are immediately hit with the smell of citrus and a sense of cleanliness. The building is constructed of concrete without ledges and food-grade stainless steel to make cleaning easier. Workers must wear hair and beard nets.

Employees, bin-stacking robots and computers work closely together 20 hours a day, six days a week between November and April.

Production lines speed up and slow down constantly according to order volume. To improve food safety, everything is monitored, tracked and labeled.

About half the plant's power supply is generated on-site by rooftop photovoltaic solar panels and natural gas fuel cells.

Meeting demand

A key part of the design is that it's scalable, meaning capacity can easily be expanded as cuties demand increases.

Last year Roll, the parent company of Paramount Farms and Pom Wonderful, shipped 60,000 five-pound bags of cuties to every major grocery chain and big-box retailer in the United States. It expects to triple that volume within about five years.

To support existing demand, Paramount Citrus, the Roll division responsible for cuties, lemons, limes and grapefruit, has 7,000 producing acres spread over Kern, Tulare, Madera and Fresno counties -- concentrated in that order.

In anticipation of rising demand. Paramount said it recently planted an additional 6,000 acres of the trees.

But will demand rise enough to justify such investment?

The company strongly believes so. For one thing, it only began national advertising last year, which was about eight years after cuties were first introduced. Also, only about 5 percent of this year's shipments were exported; all went to Pacific Rim countries such as Japan, Korea and Australia.

For his part, the president of Paramount Citrus, David Krause, said he has little doubt. Cuties are sweet, tasty, juicy, seedless and easy to eat, he said.

What's more, they're considered kid-friendly because they're not messy and present an ideal serving size, he said.

"It's just a perfect fruit in today's world," he said.

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