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Fruit-breeder IFG breaks ground on $12 million campus near McFarland

Even for a company with customers and employees spread across 15 countries, it felt a little clunky shuttling between greenhouses in Edison, laboratory space near Delano, a cold-storage facility in Shafter and headquarters in Bakersfield.

That sort of decentralized operating model will be drawing to a close after fruit-breeder IFG launched construction Tuesday of a 160-acre facility west of McFarland that will provide room for everything from research and administration to licensee-training and consumer taste-testing.

"These are critical things," project manager Tom Bracken said following an early-afternoon toast to the groundbreaking on a mostly empty lot surrounded by commercial orchards. "To be able to have it all in one space is obviously much more effective."

IFG, short for International Fruit Genetics, combined the groundbreaking with its 20-year anniversary celebration in a ceremony that highlighted not just the company's humble origins but also a decidedly science-based future.

CEO Andy Higgins also took the opportunity Tuesday to unveil the $12 million project's name: Fruitworks / The IFG Discovery Center.

The name intentionally avoids the word "innovation," which Higgins said seems overused these days. But that doesn't mean there won't be plenty of innovating going on at a site planned to include 28,000 square feet of lab and support buildings plus 25,000 square feet of greenhouses.

Already experimentation is apparent with hundreds of cherry saplings taking root at the site. Using only traditional hybridization techniques, as opposed to genetic modification procedures viewed with skepticism by many consumers, the company has incorporated the DNA of Taiwanese cherries selected for their ability to grow in climates where cold weather is in short supply.

Company founder, shareholder and board member Jack Pandol Jr. told Tuesday's crowd the saplings will lead to delicious, firm fruit that within five to 10 years will allow Kern County growers to produce cherries even if the preceding winter didn't offer the minimum number of "chill hours" most cherry trees historically require.

Grapes also are a big focus. IFG produced the famous Cotton Candy grapes, along with a better-selling variety called Sweet Globe. Such innovations tend to take eight to 10 years each; it's generally 15 to 20 years for cherries.

Pandol said the company might deploy the site's new capabilities by expanding beyond table grapes and cherries. Already it is working with raisin grapes.

Like other fruit breeders, IFG produces intellectual property — the fruit varieties themselves — then licenses it to growers around the world whose goal it is to produce quality fruit that can be shipped worldwide during as many months of the year as possible.

The company owns 45 fruit patents and counts more than 1,300 licensees growing IFG varieties on a total of more than 70,000 acres worldwide.

Plans call for pouring concrete at the facility's future shop area later this week. Most of the new buildings are scheduled to be fully built by the end of this year. Lab and administrative space isn't expected to be ready until next year.

The company says new hiring will have to be done to expand its staff of about 55 by as many as 17 scientists and other researchers. The newcomers will mostly be assigned to new laboratory space that, at nearly 10,000 square feet, will dwarf IFG's existing lab measuring about 1,600 square feet.

With the new space and personnel will come whole new capabilities, employees said. Bracken said there will be a greater emphasis on fruit pathology, and IFG's lead plant breeder, Chris Owens, explained that the new facility will open the door to more work on a molecular level.

Kern County Supervisor David Couch presented the company with a proclamation recognizing IFG's local contributions. He said the company's new investment will increase its property-tax contributions while boosting local employment in high-technology biosciences.

"It's a big deal for this county," Couch said.