Grower Spotlight - with David Fenn, Sr. Vice President of Farming at SunWorld International
David Fenn is the Senior Vice President of Farming at Sun World International. In 2017 Sun World International worked with Project Apis m.’s Seeds for Bees program to plant hedgerows and bee-friendly cover crops and earn Pollinator Partnership’s Bee Friendly Farming certification. Sun World has a deep commitment to sustainability which you can read more about here.
We talked to David to learn more about growing table grapes in California, and how Sun World approaches cover crops and other sustainability practices.
Who do you work for and what is your job title?
I work for Sun World International and I am the Senior Vice President of Farming.
Where did you grow up, and how did you become interested in agriculture?
I was born and raised in Northern Mexico in the state of Sonora. My father’s hobby was beekeeping. His main job was copper mining, and this was a side gig for him. He had a pretty brisk business raising bee hives. He started the business to sell honey, but eventually started pollinating crops like cucumbers, melons, almonds, and apples. I spent a lot of time with my dad working with the bees, and realized bees are a fascinating insect - and then I also fell in love with agriculture. It was a great opportunity for me and my siblings to spend a lot of time outdoors, in nature and with the bees especially.
Where did you go to school? What other credentials do you have?
I did my undergraduate at the University of Arizona in Ag Economics and then I got a master’s degree in horticulture specializing in viticulture at UC Davis. I have a Pest Control Advisors (PCA) license which gives me the ability to implement integrated pest management and write recommendations for our crop protection needs. I also have a Certified Crop Advisors license. In today’s world there is a lot of regulation in California concerning underground drinking water conditions. This license authorizes me to put together nitrogen management plans for any crop or dairy to help prevent nitrogen leaking into the groundwater.
What was your work experience before your position at Sun World?
After I graduated from UC Davis I worked on a farm and vineyard in Arizona for about five years and then Sun World. I have been with Sun World for 30 years in different capacities. I did leave for a couple years and went up to the Napa Valley to grow wine grapes. At Sun World I was first hired to help Mexican growers in the state of Sonora improve their quality of grapes being imported and sold by Sun World. For four years my family and I lived in Cairo where I was helping to develop a large agricultural project in Southern Egypt. I came back to the US and was put in charge of the Food, Safety, and Quality Control Department at Sun World which managed all the food safety certifications that many of our retailers require. I then got back into production agriculture in 2008. Because our company has one of the world’s largest breeding programs for seedless table grapes and stone fruit we also offer technical advice to growers all around the world. I have been able to travel to South Africa, Europe, Chile, and other countries working with our production practices on our varieties of grapes.
What is it like growing table grapes for Sun World?
Table grapes are very challenging. They are very intense, finicky, and they are very labor intensive. Because we are always producing new varieties, it is always a challenge to find the best practices in the shortest amount of time. But this is exactly what I enjoy; the challenge of bringing new varieties into commercial production.
What does sustainability mean, and why is it important to you and to Sun World Grapes?
I mentioned I am a Certified Crop Advisor and [the American Society for Agronomy, Inc.] has a specialty for sustainability; their definition is meeting the needs of the present while improving the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. There are some United Nations principals which surround this which are environmental, social, and economic. The economic part is having productive vineyards without wasting resources. The social front is about safety. We are really concerned about our labor force and environmental safety, especially when applying products to the vineyards that can drift or get into the water systems. Sun World’s owner, Renewable Resources Group, has been very innovative and are looking at ways to give back to the worker and give back to their lives. We also are looking at certifying our crops with Fair Trade USA which focuses on how workers are treated, so we do feel that the social aspect is very important.
For environmental sustainability, I have the Pest Control license which trains me about how to keep people safe by following proper reentry interval and harvest times - making sure things are applied properly and at the right time. From the soil’s standpoint we know that cover crops help the bees and add structure and moisture to the soil.
How do you think the end consumer or views sustainable growing practices?
Our main buyer of table grapes is a mother between 25-35 has two children and is very well educated. My daughter fits that profile (except for the two kids) and she is all about Fair Trade and sustainability. I think consumers see sustainability as being environmentally conscious and reducing the use of pesticides that are disruptive and pollute waterways and schools. It’s a longer-term view of how we can keep earth clean and pristine for generations to come.
What do you think are some of the barriers growers face when making choices to improve/increase sustainability?
Good question. Sometimes it’s a mindset of not wanting to change. There is a bit of that in the industry, but there are also some very progressive growers. Sometimes its cost; the cost benefit may be hard to see for some people and they may not be willing to invest in it. But we want to provide the consumer with what they want and we want to make sure that our practices verify that we are being sustainable.
When did you start planting Seeds for Bees cover crops, and why did you choose to include them in your sustainability plan?
We think that being a part of Project Apis m. is important because of the declining bee population and the impact on producing food. I have my own bees and love the bee business and bees. Vineyards don’t require pollination from bees, but our cover crops do improve soil health, tilth, and provide nutrition for bees and pollinators. Since we are planting cover crops anyway, it made sense to design and plant some that will help out bees and pollinators.
What other things have you done for bees?
We make sure we apply products in a way that isn’t harmful to bees. In Kern County, where we grow most of our grapes, there is a program where bee keepers are notified before an application of crop protection products so they can move their hives or cover them up if it’s appropriate.
How does a Bee Friendly Farming certification help your business?
Partnerships like those with Project Apis m. and the Pollinator Partnership align with and add to the sustainability efforts we already practice. From a marketing standpoint, it’s nice to have that logo featured in our marketing and sales efforts to highlight what we are doing.
What are the soil benefits that you have experienced by planting cover crops?
We find that cover crops really keep pathogens off the grapes. Some of our vineyards are on old dairy land that is high in nitrates so we plant cover crops that will extract as much nitrogen as possible. In places that don’t get a lot of rain we plant barley cover crops that will grow with very little rain. Every vineyard and soil type is a little different so we have to select the right cover crop for each area.
What are the biggest issues grape growers face today?
Labor shortage is a big issue which is why we are working on a different tact there. Water issues are becoming more and more crucial in California. Recent ground water extraction laws will limit our ability to pump ground water and it could have a big effect on land and its values and our ability to grow in the San Joaquin Valley. Meeting the Rules and Regulations of California can also be a challenge.
What tool could you not live without?
Labor and water are the most important tools we have, but also crop protection products. It’s amazing how we have developed the ability to be very targeted with pest control and how these products have become very useful and friendlier to environment. Without crop protection products we couldn’t grow our crops, and I have seen huge innovations in this area over the past 30 years of my career.
What is your favorite way to eat grapes?
Fresh off the vine – I spend a lot of time in the vineyards and usually eat too many in the day - or we like to freeze them at home and my wife makes shakes out of them with frozen strawberries and blueberries. They are really good that way and when the kids were younger they liked to eat grapes frozen.
What do you like to do when you are not working?
I like to hike in the backcountry, read, and my wife and I volunteer for several organizations in our community counseling young couples and spending time with abandoned babies at the hospital.
At Project Apis m. we are excited to be partnering with growers like David Fenn and Sun World International. Together, we are helping to create a culture and practice of sustainable farming which supports pollinator health.
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