Manzana Products, Sonoma County's last apple processor, is being acquired by a large French agricultural cooperative.
The deal will help the 90-year-old Sebastopol company expand and aid a local farm segment that has been in decline for decades, Manzana President Suzanne Kaido said Monday.
"It's going to be real good for our growers," Kaido said. "This company is going to be very interested in more apples."
Manzana is becoming part of the Eclor beverage division of Agrial Group SA, Kaido said. Based in Caen, France, Agrial processes beef, pork, poultry, dairy, grains and juices, with sales of 2.3 billion Euros in 2010.
Financial details were not disclosed. Upon completion of the acquisition in a few years, Kaido and other family members won't retain any interest in Manzana, she said.
Farmers and ag supporters called the sale a hopeful move to keep apple farming alive in the county.
"I think it's a great thing that they found the right buyers that didn't want to shutter the plant," said Steve Dutton, president of Dutton Ranch outside Graton, the county's largest grower of organic apples.
Manzana produces apple sauce, juice and apple cider vinegar. Ninety percent of the products are designated organic, and most are prepared for private store labels. The company has been owned by the same family since its founding.
Manzana has averaged annual growth of 12 to 15 percent in the past five years, Kaido said, and last year shipped a record 1 million cases worth of product. But it needs considerable capital investment to expand — something Agrial can provide.
The cooperative contacted Manzana last June about a merger, she said.
The local company will keep the Manzana name and will retain its 45 permanent, year-round employees, Kaido said. The work force expands to nearly 100 around apple harvest.
Kaido will retain her position as president. Her cousin, Dick Norton, will continue as vice president of operations and 36-year apple industry veteran Mark Fitzgerald will remain as general manager.
Six decades ago, the county had 11,000 acres in apple orchards. But today, much of that land has been converted to vineyards, and less than 3,000 acres remain in apples.
Despite recent efforts to increase fresh sales of west county's iconic Gravenstein apples, well over 90 percent of the local apple crop is sold for juice or other processed foods.
"Hopefully the new Manzana will be in a stronger position to support local agriculture," Sonoma County Farm Bureau Executive Director Lex McCorvey said.
Paul Vossen, farm adviser for the UC Cooperative Extension, said the French cooperative might be better able to market niche products featuring local apples.
"If they can make some money on that, that's going to be really important," he said.