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AC enters frozen fruit processing with Firestone Pacific investment

Agriculture Capital co-managing director Rob Hurlbut says adding frozen processing capacity will help the firm tap into growing global demand for blueberries.

Agriculture Capital has acquired a controlling stake in Firestone Pacific, a frozen fruit processor and packer in Vancouver, Washington. Financial details were not disclosed.

The transaction was announced September 5 and marks the first investment into frozen fruit processing for permanent crop-focused AC. Capital for the investment was drawn from the firm’s ACM II Fund, which closed on $548 million in late 2017.

Family-owned Firestone was founded in 1896 and offers frozen fruit processing, packing and cold storage services to growers throughout the Pacific Northwest. In addition to its own farm – an 80-acre property that was part of the AC transaction – Firestone processes supplies from a network of producers of blueberries, cherries, mangoes and strawberries, among other crops.

Co-managing director Rob Hurlbut told Agri Investor that AC’s vertically-integrated operations already include a facility for packing fresh fruit, and the firm had long been interested in adding frozen-fruit capabilities.

“We’re in blueberries – we like blueberries a lot,” he said. “We think they meet the first hurdle quite well in terms of consumer appeal, both domestically as well as globally, now. The frozen part of the category for us is very important, it’s a big part of the global trade.”

Hurlbut said this year marked the first time AC has sold products that adhere to the Bee Better Certification for an on-farm native pollinator habitat, which the firm developed with the non-profit Xerces Society.

The certification affirms that AC has planted an area near a specific property with plants well-suited to supporting pollinators, which in addition to helping pollinate crops, can help support a more resilient local ecosystem.

Use of such native pollinators can reduce AC’s reliance on outside pollination services, Hurlbut explained, adding that such practice can also help appeal to consumers and, eventually, increase yields.

“On the Oregon farms – where we started this first about three years ago – we’ve seen a 250 percent increase in native pollinator counts on that farm,” said Hurlbut. “It’s hard yet to demonstrate the yield benefit, but anecdotally we have some great examples, but it takes years to really prove that out.”

AC, which was co-founded by Portland, Oregon-headquartered real assets specialist Equilibrium, currently manages 18,000 acres in California, Oregon and Australia as part of a strategy focusing on citrus, hazelnuts, blueberries and table grapes.