Califonia Bountiful

Blueberry business booms in California

May/June 2008 California Country magazine

Two brothers lead the charge to bring this healthy fruit into prominence in the farm fields of the Golden State.

A decade ago, blueberries were such a small crop in California that it would have been surprising to think that the fruit would make it big here.

It only seems fitting that two brothers from half a world away have led the charge to bring this healthy fruit into prominence in the farm fields of the Golden State.

Indian immigrants David and Kable Munger planted blueberries in Kern County in 2000 and haven't looked back since. Today, their bushes span 1,600 acres in several San Joaquin Valley counties and will bear 6 million pounds of berries, about half of California's crop. Within five years, they expect to grow 25 million pounds of blueberries per year, making them one of the largest such farms in the world.

"It truly is a miracle fruit," David Munger said. "We were always looking into healthy products for the consumer, so we looked into blueberries and realize it's a crop we wanted to go into and it's been very good to us."

Success has come through hard work and a steep learning curve. The Mungers have utilized newer varieties that fare well in the heat of the San Joaquin Valley. They put on hundreds of tons of organic matter per acre and utilize organic fertilizers, which, in turn, provide them a plump, juicy berry that's considered among the best in the U.S.

Spurred by their pleasing taste and a battery of positive health reports, blueberries have been surging in production and popularity in recent years.

The 2006 fresh market U.S. blueberry crop returned farmers $363 million, up more than 20 percent from the 2005 total, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

California is the nation's eighth-largest blueberry producer, with 10 million pounds of production last year. The 2007 California crop is expected to total 12 million pounds.

The Mungers' story is an amazing tale of perseverance and achievement.

When the brothers were young, their father, Lajpat, left his comfortable life in India, traveling nearly 8,000 miles to America in search of a better life with more opportunity for his sons.

They first landed in the northern Sacramento Valley, working in the fields as they overcame language barriers.

The Mungers were able to buy 70 acres of walnut and peach orchards in 1971, but nearly lost it a few years later. The financial and emotional strain of their father's two heart attacks nearly ended their dreams.

When the local peach crop went bankrupt and their walnut crop failed, the brothers decided to relocate to Kern County and plant pistachios, almonds and melons.

The brothers became more diverse when they planted blueberries, a decision that has cemented their success.

To ensure their planting would flourish, the brothers studied successful operations around the world, traveling throughout the prime blueberry growing regions elsewhere in the United States, as well as in Chile, Argentina, Spain and elsewhere in Europe.

"America means everything to us," Kable Munger said. "Our parents made a lot of sacrifices to come here, but they did it so that we would have better lives and opportunities. That's exactly what happened. I travel a lot and go to many different countries many times a year and when I come back, I always say, 'You know what? This is really the best place to be!'"

As their crops have provided steady income to the family, they, in turn, have generously given back to help those less fortunate.

Lajpat, David and Kable funded many projects in their birthplace, the village of Nangal Shahidan in Northern India.

They provided the money to build a hospital that provides free care and medicine for the poor and built a university that is a sister campus of California State University, Fresno, and offers credits accepted in America. A new project in the works will have elementary and high schools constructed to replace aging facilities.

The outpouring of support fits with the philosophy of this passionate, yet humble, family.

"It makes us feel really good," Kable Munger said. "It's something our family has done for generations. My dad believed in it very strongly and installed those beliefs into us. What we call a lot of times success in this world today we relate to money, but the real success in a person's life is not from material things, but in what he does for other people or what he gives back."

As the Mungers look forward to new opportunities, including a fourfold increase in their blueberry crop by 2012, they said they understand how fortunate they are to have made such a long, successful journey.

"When we came here, we had our share of tough times, but with hard work we always dreamed of becoming successful," David Munger said. "Here we are today, and I think we're very proud. I think we are very blessed more than anything else."

"When I was younger, I could never have imagined that it would be like this," his brother echoed. "We imagine things, but never like this. It has really been a dream come true."

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