Biola-area raisin plant reopens

Raisins are sent along a conveyer belt at the West Coast Growers plant in 2006.
Raisins are sent along a conveyer belt at the West Coast Growers plant in 2006. Fresno Bee file

A Reno couple with farming interests in Madera purchased the former West Coast Growers raisin processing plant near Biola.

Troy and Basia Gillespie rescued the plant out of bankruptcy this summer, renamed it River Ranch Raisins and reopened it in early September, just in time for raisin harvest.

The west Fresno County plant employs 87 people, 47 full-time workers and 40 seasonal workers.

“This was a great business opportunity, and we were able to save some jobs for the community,” said Troy Gillespie, who serves as the company president. “And all of that was important to us.”

You wouldn’t know it at first, but the Gillespies never planned to become raisin processors. Basia Gillespie’s parents started farming raisins 30 years ago, and the family’s farm holdings included 2,500 acres of raisins in Madera County.

But the Gillespies also had their own commercial real estate company in Reno, where they make their home. It wasn’t until Troy Gillespie came across a flier advertising the sale of the plant that their lives changed.

“I was about ready to throw away the flier when I decided to take a look at the property,” he said. “After that, I saw the potential and decided to go for it.”

Basia Gillespie agreed to the plan and now serves as the River Ranch’s vice president. The Gillespies split their time between Reno and the Valley. They own a home in Madera County.

The Gillespies, who did not disclose the purchase price of the plant, were adamant about keeping several key people, including general manager Amy Burgess.

Burgess said she couldn’t be happier with the new owners.

“We have a great working environment, and our goal at River Ranch Raisins is to continue to produce quality raisins for our customers,” Burgess said.

The plant and its surrounding farmland is 100-plus acres but is still considered one of the smaller processors. Although new to the production side of farming, the Gillespies are bullish about the raisin industry’s future.

“California raisins are one of the most versatile fruits on the market,” Basia Gillespie said. “And there is no reason why we shouldn’t be able to sell every raisin that California produces while also expanding our markets.”

The Gillespies also are working on converting all of their 2,500 acres into a dried-on-the-vine system to boost production and reduce their cost of labor.

Troy Gillespie admits that some people wonder why he is jumping into the raisin industry at a time that some growers are exiting and switching to higher-value crops like almonds.

“We aren’t retreating,” he said. “We think this is still a viable industry and one that can continue to be profitable.”

Steve Spate, grower representative for the Raisin Bargaining Association, said it’s important for the industry not to lose any more raisin packers.

“You need new people in the industry who are willing to go out and do the marketing of raisins,” Spate said. “It doesn’t help to have packers and processors go out of business. We need more, not less.”

Robert Rodriguez: 559-441-6327, @FresnoBeeBob