Jesse Sandu at the Osoyoos packing facility.
“The apple didn’t fall far from the tree,” sums it up for Jesse Sandhu. At least the thirteenth generation in a continuous line of farming forebears tracing back to India, Sandhu has farming in his blood.
But the 25-year-old isn’t just carrying on the family tradition. He’s applying big business rigour to the small B.C. fruit industry. He’s packing and shipping 20 million pounds of fruit per year, to be exact. In early 2011 Sandhu launched JIND Fruit Co., leading it as President and COO. He claims the company is now the largest, most high-tech independent packer of cherries, peaches and apples in B.C.
Born in Edmonton and raised on the family orchard in Osoyoos, where he currently lives, Sandhu grew up working with (and eating) the fruit the Okanagan Valley is famous for.
His dad, Jasvir, started the family business in 1989, growing and packing fruit. Manning the family fruit stand was a summer tradition for Sandhu and his grandfather.
“In elementary school I would work the fruit stand in the summers,” he remembers. “My dad and uncle would tell me if I made a minimum of $500 they would take me to A&W. (A&W was a big thing then – the only fast-food in Osoyoos.) I made signs and put them along the highway. I organized ready-to-go trays and boxes for customers…I hustled my ass off,” says Sandhu.
Two years ago, however, Sandhu’s future wasn’t as clearly focused. With his BA from Simon Fraser University in-hand, he left for the U.K. to study banking and finance law at the University of Leicester and was well on his way to becoming a hedge fund manager – a far cry from the fruit business.
But the orchards called him home. The more he learned about the world of finance and the lifestyle that went with it, the more he preferred orchards to ‘hedges,’ so Sandhu made an abrupt U-turn and returned to his roots in Osoyoos.
Home and family are important, but something else brought him back to Osoyoos: opportunity. Sandhu’s business education and his experience in the orchard allowed him to see a gap in the B.C. marketplace for a large private packer.
“It was an open market. Especially in B.C. - this industry was kind of falling apart,” he says. “So, we took it.”
There are many small private packers, but most work within the co-op system, he explains. Sandhu believes that the transition to private systems in other fruit-growing regions in North America is something B.C. has missed out on.
“In a co-op, if one grower has one acre and another grower has 100 acres, both still have the same say. The fact that they‘ve made vastly different investments in their operations doesn’t count for anything,” he says.
In addition, co-op overhead can be huge, he says. Upper managers are paid upper salaries while severance pay and other benefits are very generous, which can impact growers in a down year.
According to Sandhu, if the growers don’t make money, “Neither do we.”
Building the Business
After JIND launched, Sandhu’s first move was to invest $6 million in the company’s Osoyoos packing facility, which now packs and ships about 20 million pounds of fruit per year from about 70 growers across the Okanagan. Depending on load, the facility can be running nearly 24 hours a day – “like from 7:00 in the morning until 4:00 the next morning during the cherry peak – it’s pretty hectic.” It employs up to 50 pickers plus 45 packers, shippers and salespeople during the busiest times.
Facility automation moves more pounds of fruit per day than manual packing, so JIND can get products “from tree-to-store in 24,” says Sandhu. The technology, from outdoor hydro-coolers to automated defect sorters, bagging and clamshell packers, ensures the fruit is very fresh when it arrives at retail.
Food safety and traceability have been built into the facility from the beginning, says Sandhu. JIND also recently subsidized each of its growers to become individually certified for CanadaGAP, a year ahead of mandatory certification. They’re the only B.C. packer yet to do so.
The company markets a range of tree fruits using evocative trademarked names like Summer Nights Cherries, Summer Love Peaches and Summer Breeze Apples, each brand with its own distinct packaging and personality.
Summer Fling is where JIND gets to play with growing different varieties, says Sandhu. It’s a collection of orchard experiments gone “awesome” and every year the offerings are a bit different.
JIND’s innovation isn’t just relegated to the orchard, however. Sandhu has just started a pilot export program, shipping his apples to Southeast Asia, where they command more of a premium. It’s in the early stages, so Sandhu won’t say much more, but adds, “We’ve found a niche where we can get a very good price for our growers.”
Even though Sandhu left the finance world, he still hedges his bets in the orchards.
“You can’t rely on just one crop,” he explains. “In a year when unexpected weather or something else affects one of your crops, you need to be ready to compensate with other sources of revenue.”
The Sandhu family knows this from experience. In 1996 the family started year-round greenhouse operations in Osoyoos growing tomatoes and cucumbers. Now they grow the vegetables for Windset Farms, a greenhouse grower based in Delta, B.C.
“The greenhouses keep our business going 12 months of the year,” Sandhu says.
Diversity in fruit also helps provided consistent cash flow through the summer. It also makes the JIND packing house home for all growers’ fruit, not just one variety.
Know Your Growers
Sandhu believes grower-packer partnerships are the foundation. It’s the little things that count, he says. Like taking every new grower on a tour of the facility to show them how their fruit will be processed, offering trucks to pick up fruit from their orchards, or providing the services of the JIND horticulturalist to help keep growers’ orchards healthy.
Says Sandhu, “Their success is our success.” ■