Sonoma County’s last apple processor committed to preserving remaining apple orchards
Amid all the dire economic news caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a positive, good-news story emerging from Sebastopol where the county’s last apple processing plant is investing more than $9 million to secure the future of the apple trees still standing in west Sonoma County.
Manzana Products Co., which has been producing applesauce, apple juice and apple cider vinegar for nearly a century, is making a bold financial move to upgrade its facilities and reposition itself in the market so it can be around for another 100 years. Apple growers have long worried that if Manzana were to close it would be the end of the line for their farming operations and the surviving 2,000 acres of apple orchards anchored in the hills around Sebastopol.
The historic company, owned since 2012 by Agrial, an agricultural cooperative and food processor based in France, has submitted an application to the County of Sonoma to upgrade and repurpose its existing buildings to meet market demand and bolster revenues. Manzana plans to increase production of applesauce in pouches and decrease production of apple juice, which is less profitable – all part of a strategic plan to thrive and prosper in Sebastopol for the long-term.
The renovation will update Manzana’s facilities, located on Green Valley Road near the community of Graton, to more efficiently use water and energy as part of its mission to be a sustainable producer of high quality, organic, non-GMO apple products.
Jean-Jacques Ducom, the chief executive officer of Manzana Products Inc.,
said over the last eight years Agrial has invested $18 million in upgrades to Manzana’s aging facility and its technology system. The company now plans to invest an additional $9 million, which includes $5 million for building renovations and $4 million for new applesauce packing equipment, as part of the facility make-over.
“What we are proposing is not an expansion but a reconfiguration of our existing buildings to focus on more profitable products like applesauce. This will increase overall revenue so we can ensure long-term relationships with growers so the remaining apple trees around Sebastopol will stay in the ground,” said Ducom.
The Manzana CEO said one of the positive signs is that growers are replanting apple trees and looking to the future.
Mike Meyer Jr., 29, the youngest apple grower in Sebastopol, said Manzana’s plans are providing growers like him a dose of good news and an incentive to keep going despite challenges such as the scarcity of farm labor and high production costs. He said without a market outlet for their apples, growers would be forced to bulldoze their orchards. The alternatives for the land would be wine grapes or estate homes.
“Without Manzana, the apple orchards would be gone. Period. It’s just awesome that Manzana is making this investment for its future and our future as apple growers,” said Meyer, who with his father Mike Meyer Sr. farms 200 acres of certified organic apple orchards. Manzana is the Meyer family’s primary market for their apple crop.
Meyer, a young man with old-fashioned values and an incredible work ethic, loves farming and plans to be doing it for the rest of his life. He’s inspired by his hard-working parents and other long-time apple farmers like Steve and Joe Dutton and Dave and Dena Bondelie.
Ducom said the renovation at Manzana is not only about the company’s future but the community as well. He said it’s all about jobs, the county’s economy, locally sourced food and preserving a cherished agricultural tradition. The Apple Blossom Festival in April and the Gravenstein Apple Fair in August – both sidelined this year because of the pandemic – celebrate the apple orchards that have defined Sebastopol for more than a century.
Manzana, in fact, is the Spanish word for apple.
“We employ 180 people in Sebastopol with over $10 million in salaries circulated back into the local economy. We also spend over $6.5 million locally supporting the remaining organic apple orchards, local businesses, and nonprofits every year,” said Ducom. “We are carrying on Sonoma County’s apple heritage and our mission is to ensure that apples remain in Sonoma County for the next 100 years.”
Manzana’s renovation plans go before the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Oct. 6. Sonoma County Farm Bureau is encouraging the agriculture community and anyone who wants to save the apple industry to join its efforts in supporting Manzana by contacting county supervisors and speaking at the hearing. In many ways, said Farm Bureau leaders, the county’s decision will determine the future of the apple orchards still standing around Sebastopol.
“Manzana is making a huge investment in the future of our apple industry while doing its part to maintain the great diversity of Sonoma County agriculture. Manzana is a crucial player in the apple market. It would be extremely difficult to haul our apples out of the county to other processors,” said Jeff Carlton, president of Sonoma County Farm Bureau.
Sonoma County’s apple industry has been in decline for decades because of world-wide competition, primarily from China, the global leader in production with 5 million acres planted to apples. During its heyday in the early 1940s, Sonoma County had 15,000 acres of apples, with nearly 10,000 acres planted to Gravensteins. Sebastopol was proclaimed the Gravenstein Capital of the World because the spicy apple, a delectable blend of tart and sweet, thrives so well in the deep soil of the fog-shrouded hills around Sebastopol. But cheap imports of apple juice and apple products from China and other countries depressed apple prices forcing growers to yank out their trees and plant wine grapes, which are more profitable.
In the booming days of the apple industry there were dozens of packing houses and 10 apple processing plants. Today, Manzana is the only processing facility left, with a handful of remaining apple growers dependent on its survival.
The most recent crop report by the Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner’s office lists a total of 2,166 acres of apples in the county, with 684 acres planted to Gravensteins. That compares to nearly 60,000 acres of wine grapes, which have replaced many of the old apple orchards in west county.
But the apple orchards are considered a community treasure. There are efforts to preserve the remaining apple trees, with organizations promoting the value of locally grown food and championing the preservation of agricultural heirlooms like the Gravenstein apple.
Carlton encourages Farm Bureau members to get behind Manzana’s proposal as it moves through the county for approval. He said it’s very important that county leaders know the importance of processing facilities for the agricultural economy in Sonoma County.
“I am excited that Manzana is moving forward to win county approval for the renovation project it has planned. Manzana produces the finest products from the organic apples that grow around Sebastopol,” said Carlton.
The seasonal apple harvest is well underway in Sebastopol where pickers are in orchards and trucks are trundling along backroads delivering the apples to Manzana for processing. It’s dynamic and energizing to see everyone working together in a systematic way to produce a wholesome food product, like applesauce, made from organic apples grown in Sonoma County and brought from other states like Washington and Arizona.
“It’s always booming here but especially during harvest. This is my favorite time of year. It’s really what it’s all about,” said Alissa Trinei, marketing specialist for the North Coast Organic Brand, which is Manzana’s own label.
A Sonoma County native, Trinei is a former school teacher who was seeking a new career seven years ago when she became the marketing specialist at Manzana. Like many people who grew up here, Trinei didn’t know Manzana even existed or what it produced before she started working for the company. Now, she is the friendly and familiar face of Manzana and its most ardent advocate. She said working for Manzana is like being part of a family because there is a culture of care as everyone focuses on crafting the finest apple products on the market.
Trinei and Manzana’s sales team have grown the North Coast Brand nearly 15-fold in the last seven years, going from $750,000 to more than $11 million in sales with the market expanding beyond the North Coast to a national presence.
Trinei and Ducom expect continued sales increases as Manzana zeroes in on more profitable product lines like applesauce in pouches, a healthy snack alternative for kids.
Manzana traces its roots to a small dryer operation known as Oehlmann Evaporator that was established in 1922 and was owned and operated by husband and wife team, Rudolph and Maude Oehlmann. In 1945, Oehlmann Evaporator incorporated and changed its name to Manzana Products. Manzana, the Spanish word for apple, was chosen to honor the work and dedication of the company’s many Latino employees.
When the family that owned Manzana was looking to sell they held out for a buyer that would keep the facility as an apple processor, saving jobs for the long-time employees and providing a market for the fruit from the remaining apple orchards. Some buyers wanted the property for its real estate value and planned to close the processing plant forever. Fortuitously, in 2012 Agrial of France came along, promising to keep the sprawling facility as an apple processor while maintaining the Manzana name and the same line of apple products.
It was a move – then and now – that is preserving a swath of apple orchards in Sebastopol and a farming tradition that upholds Sonoma County’s role as a food shed for the San Francisco Bay Area.