What goes into the bag of fresh cherries you see at your local grocery store? If they’re from California, they may well have been grown, packed, and shipped by a single operation in the San Joaquin Valley.
O-G Packing and Cold Storage is a family-owned business in Stockton that grows, packs, and ships fresh California cherries, blueberries, apricots, and walnuts to retailers in the U.S. and around the world. This vertically integrated operation packs millions of boxes of fruit and nuts, but it comes from humble roots, with an Italian family looking for a fresh start in the U.S.
The family’s history in California goes back to the early 1900s, when members of the Gotelli family emigrated from Italy to grow cherries along the Calaveras River. What started as a cherry farming and packing operation in the 1950s under the label Oneto-Gotelli Packing is now known simply as O-G Packing.
“My brother and I started as kids working on the ranches, and my dad put us to work hoeing trees and picking up brush,” said Tom Gotelli, a partner in O-G Packing. “Once we got to about 11 or 12 years old, we started driving a tractor and chopping and discarding. We’ve done it all, and it’s only grown from there.”
Dennis Gogna, a partner in the business, said the family’s deep roots in California agriculture and willingness to innovate at every step have helped O-G Packing carve out a successful niche in the packing industry.
“What’s unique is that it’s three families that are still united and keeping this thing running,” said Dennis. “It’s still a family organization, and that’s important.”
Perfecting the art of fresh fruit and nut packing
O-G Packing only has six weeks from mid-April to early June to squeeze in all the cherry packing, which in the peak season hits 80,000 boxes per day. Each cherry will be picked, moved to a bin, cleaned, processed, prepared for storage, and later transported by truck to its destination.
With a fruit as small and sensitive as a cherry, Tom says the sorting process used to be tedious and labor-intensive, at times requiring hundreds of employees to work as sorters on the line. Today, O-G Packing uses advanced optical sorting technology to rapidly sort the bulk of their fruit, paving the way for a faster and more efficient packing process.
“In the past, it was very difficult to sort all of that fruit, even if you had 200-300 sorters,” said Tom. “With the electronics and cameras now, it gets it done extremely well. It’s 97 to 98 percent accurate.”
Building transparency and sustainability in packing
Across the U.S., consumers are keenly focused on how their food is grown and packaged. In a nod to their retail partners and consumers, O-G Packing has steadily built a system with greater transparency in how they grow and pack fresh cherries, blueberries, apricots, and walnuts.
Laurel Hansen is the food safety and compliance manager for Grower Direct Marketing, the global produce marketing arm of O-G Packing. She said that consumers may not realize they’re eating cherries or blueberries harvested and packed that same day, a remarkable feat considering the volume of fresh fruit and nuts the company is able to process.
“When a consumer goes to the store, we want them to feel as though they’re as close to the field as possible,” said Laurel. “In a lot of ways, they are. When we get a product, it’s harvested in the morning. It’s gone through the line. It’s cleaned and checked for quality, and then it’s sent off to the grocery store. Sometimes within a couple of hours [a consumer] is eating it.”
Laurel says building transparency and accountability to consumers is core in her team’s work at O-G Packing and Grower Direct Marketing. To do so, she’s leading the effort to have O-G Packing’s farming system audited and verified with new labeling for certified organic products.
“One of the ways we’re committed to sustainability here on-site is through consumer transparency,” said Laurel. “We now have an organic audit all the way through from the field to the grocery store. Being transparent with consumers and letting them know this product is in line with their values, I think that’s incredibly important.”
Working with a lender in agriculture
Over the years, O-G Packing has expanded its footprint while bringing on new technology to automate parts of the sorting process. When planning a new investment, the family has turned to American AgCredit for expertise on how best to finance facilities or equipment.
Ted Reimers, vice president of the agribusiness team for American AgCredit, has worked with O-G Packing for years as the family has overcome hurdles and capitalized on new opportunities.
“The difference with O-G Packing is in a couple of things,” said Ted. “One is innovation. They were one of the first to innovate stem-cutting technology for cherries. Now with the UNITECH optical sorters, they are always innovating and moving the industry forward.”
Tom Gotelli said the short season for cherries makes them a desirable product to find on grocery store shelves. It’s a sense of excitement dating back to childhood that keeps him inspired to work with this delicious – and delicate – product.
“It’s a wonderful commodity,” said Tom. “You can’t get cherries all the time, so that makes them even more intriguing to get while you can.”