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Wednesday, December 12 , 2018, 1:21 pm | Fair 63º


Huge Berry Processing Plant Opens in Santa Maria

Titan Frozen Fruit's operation on West La Brea Avenue marks the valley’s largest and newest strawberry processing facility

Inside a new humongous building in Santa Maria, strawberries by the thousands speed along a conveyor belt en route to being washed, sorted, frozen and boxed.

Titan Frozen Fruit, housed in a portion of the facility on West La Brea Avenue, marks the Santa Maria Valley’s largest and newest strawberry processing facility, prepping the area’s red gems so they can be delivered from the Central Coast around the world.

In addition to an ability to quickly freeze fruit, the plant has equipment for pasteurization and concentration, which will allow the facility to use frozen fruit to create product during the off season.

“We’ve made quite a capital investment in this operation,” Titan president Jon Larsen said. “This is the first new strawberry processing facility built in in California in approximately 20 years.”

The fledgling’s firm motto: Processing for the next generation.

“We want to be proactive and we want to be ahead of the game in every aspect of the processing industry, from a technology standpoint on equipment to food safety regulations,” Larsen said. “We don’t want to wait to be told and for new regulations to come out. … We want to be ahead of the curve.”

Whether quickly frozen, made into puree or condensed into concentrate, strawberry processing has occurred at the site since late May, although the first weeks were spent testing equipment, according to Larsen.

“We weren’t producing product for consumers,” Larsen said. “It was just to test out equipment to make sure everything was sanitized and we were getting proper microbe counts and whatnot.”

While coolers are common around the Santa Maria Valley to keep vegetables and fresh produce chilled before heading to markets, the Titan and Lineage Logistics site offers something new — a zero-degree facility.

“That’s going to be a huge plus for this whole region I think,” Larsen said.

Titan offers an avenue for growers whose fruit might not have the shelf life to make it to the East Coast or Midwest for fresh markets. In the past, that fruit had to be shipped to strawberry processing facilities north or south of Santa Maria.

President Jon Larsen stands outside the new Titan Frozen Fruit strawberry processing plant in Santa Maria. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

The top item processed by Titan is individually quick frozen, or IQF, strawberries put through a special equipment that freezes the fruit in 12 minutes.

“It’s a real quick freeze, and what that does is it helps you preserve the color, some of the nutrients and certainly the flavor,” he said.

They also make pasteurized purees and puree concentrate for use in other products such as jams, jellies, beverages and more.

Despite starting up midseason, Larsen estimated that Titan will still process more than 40 million pounds of berries in 2014. Within two years, they hope to be processing more than 100 million pounds from all three growing areas in the state.

At the peak of the season the firm has approximately 220 employees. 

“We found some real gems down here,” Larsen said, describing employees as hardworking and diversified.

Because it’s seasonal, the bulk of employees will have at least a month without work each year. However, Titan officials are hoping to minimize the time the plant is idle.

“Everything we’re doing right now is exclusive to strawberry products and ingredients, but we are starting just within the next couple weeks doing some R&D on different raspberry and blackberry items because we’ve had our growers in the area come to us,” Larsen said. “That’s a growing marketing down here is the raspberries and the blackberries. There’s a lack of an alternative home once the fresh market leaves the district.”

Larsen and his two other operating partners — Eric Duyck, vice president of operations, and Quinn Johnson, vice president of sales — are childhood friends who grew up in Oregon, harvested berries there as children and worked in Pacific Northwest processing plants after that.

“It became careers for all three of us,” Larsen said, adding they went in their own direction but remained in contact and talked about forming a company.

At one time, Larsen considered a career in law enforcement. 

“I don’t think people, when they’re little kids, grow up and say, ‘When I grow up I want to be a berry processor,’” he said. “It just kind of happens. … After awhile it just kind of becomes a way of life.”

A partner in a similar firm, Larsen’s former company was sold, providing the timing and opportunity to create Titan Frozen Fruit.

When creating the firm and thinking up a name, they latched onto Titan Frozen Fruit, only later making the link to Vandenberg Air Force Base’s heritage rocket and missile programs. They also later learned they share the same name as the mascot of Nipomo High School.

“There was no rationale for it really,” Larsen said, adding it drew a response from friends and growers thinking they were paying homage to the venerable rocket and missile program. “Once we heard that, we knew it was the right name then.”

While most of the strawberries processed this year came from the Santa Maria Valley, Titan officials expect to also handle berries from California’s other two growing districts — Oxnard and Watsonville-Salinas.

The central location among the state’s strawberry growing regions isn’t the only reason Titan chose to set up shop in Santa Maria. This year, Santa Maria represents 27 percent of the strawberry acreage in California, Larsen said.

“That number’s growing,” Larsen said. “Oxnard’s having a lot of a challenges.”

Substantially higher land costs due to commercial development and expanding raspberry production are making it difficult for the Oxnard strawberry growers, in addition to water woes. 

The drawback to Santa Maria centered on the lack of available cold storage for frozen fruit, leading Titan officials to link up with Colton-based Lineage Logistics. Titan has a long-term lease for its portion of Lineage facility in Santa Maria.

“The Santa Maria project is another example of our commitment to our customers and their needs,” Lineage CEO Bill Hendricksen said in a news release. “We are proud to add a Lineage facility in a region where our fruit and vegetable customers need capacity to grow their businesses.”

Last October, the 11-acre site sat empty. A year later, Titan is wrapping up its first season which Larsen credits to the city of Santa Maria living up to its pro-business and pro-agriculture reputation.

“I don’t think that could happen in a lot of local governments," Larsen said. "I just can’t be complimentary enough toward the city of Santa Maria and their cooperation.”

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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