Vertical integration and innovative packaging are keeping Wilbur Packing Co. ahead of the pack with the two products it grows, processes and sells. The markets Wilbur serves are completely different – all of the walnuts Wilbur processes are sold in bulk while the majority of its prunes end up at retail, mostly for snacking, Sales Manager and Co-owner Richard Wilbur estimates. The rest are used in commercial baking and at health bars.
Prunes are grown, dried and then usually pitted. “If people were going to eat a prune fresh, they would just eat a standard plum,” Wilbur points out. “A prune is a plum – a prune is just a variety of plum that can be dried. This variety is the best for dehydrating and pitting. When they’re fresh, you don’t have the digestive benefits.”
People who seek unprocessed products prize prunes, especially the organic variety that Wilbur Packing provides. Prunes are high in fiber and potassium. “Prunes do not have any flavorings or sugars added,” Wilbur maintains. “The sugars in prunes are natural sugars. Unlike a lot of dried tropical fruits – quite a few of which have sugar added to them – prunes are dried and they’re sweet all by themselves.”
Prunes are well-known for their digestive health benefits. “With an aging population, our consumers here in the United States have not taken advantage of the health benefits of prunes as other countries have, like Korea and Japan,” Wilbur concedes. “Walnuts have really benefited from aggressive research and really smart marketing efforts by the California Walnut Board, and they have done a great job communicating the health benefits to consumers. We believe California prunes have equal or greater health benefits than walnuts, but unfortunately, the California prune industry has not been as successful promoting those health benefits.”
Wilbur Packing Co. produces approximately half the prunes and walnuts it distributes on approximately 4,000 acres of land in the Sacramento Valley where it is headquartered. The amount of land devoted to each crop is divided evenly. The rest of the harvest is bought from a select number of growers.
“We’re vertically integrated – we control quality from the field on to the packaged product,” Wilbur explains. The company’s walnut and prune-processing plants are each approximately 20,000 square feet in size. The company is in its fifth generation of 100 percent family ownership and management, and Wilbur’s father, Rick, is its president.
A recent innovation is to use a special heating process on organic prunes to kill mold and bacteria so they last in the package without preservatives. “We have a way of selling organic retail-packed prunes at a higher moisture,” Wilbur adds. The company sells prunes dried to between 25 to 34 percent moisture – depending on the customer’s specification – and only processes them for specific orders. “We also have a full array of packing options for our retail prunes packed in canisters, reclosable bags, pillows, canisters and boxes,” Wilbur notes.
Once the prunes reach the desired pressure and sugar content through analysis of samples, they are harvested in late August through early September by mechanically shaking their trees.
They are put in bins and then trays for drying in tunnel ovens for approximately 18 hours at around 180 F. “The prunes do not touch the ground,” Wilbur emphasizes.
The Way of the Walnut
Walnuts are harvested from the trees, removed from their green hull in shells, dried in drier tanks and cracked in a drum if they are to be sold out of the shell. Sold shelled and unshelled in vacuum or nitrogen-flushed 25- to 30-pound cases, the walnuts are bought by supermarkets, bakeries and food processors. They are processed in a separate facility from the prunes.
Wilbur Packing Co.’s products are sold internationally. In the European Union (E.U.), the company’s prunes are subject to a 9.6 percent duty to protect French prunes. But Chilean prunes – the majority of which Wilbur maintains are sun-dried – have no such duty levied on them.
“If you really want to increase prune consumption, our largest market is western Europe,” Wilbur points out. “If you really want a magic bullet that would be guaranteed to increase prune sales, it would be for the U.S. government to negotiate a lower duty or eliminate entirely the current tariff the E.U. has in place for California prunes.”