From clementines to kiwifruit, Sun Pacific Cos. chairman Berne Evans always sought to identify untapped demand for fresh produce and turn it into new business.

Under its Cuties label, Pasadena, Calif.-based Sun Pacific ships about 65 million boxes of clementines and w. murcotts yearly. Before parting ways last year with Paramount Citrus, that was 95 million. Recently the fruit went year-round with the introduction of Summer Cuties from the Southern Hemisphere.

Today Evans sees another opportunity in kiwifruit.

“We think that in three or four years, we’ll produce about 75% of the kiwifruit grown in the U.S.,” he said. “It’s relatively underdeveloped. Per-capita consumption in the U.S. is one-sixth of Europe. So we’ve planted a lot and we’re recommending to retailers that they buy it from us when it’s been pre-ripened.”

Sun Pacific’s acquisition of 2,000 acres from Naumes Inc. in Olivehurst, Calif., is part of that push. Much of the land has been, or will be, replanted to kiwifruit.

“Berne Evans has to be considered one of the most fascinating and mercurial personalities in our industry,” said Joel Nelsen, California Citrus Mutual president. “He has shown that making money is not evil, that spending money to make money is a viable tool and risk taking can be rewarding.”

“He has never lost sight that his investment is in the land and the trees, thus he is a grower first,” Nelsen said.

Sun Pacific and Paramount produced the first major Cuties crop in 2004. But clementine production — at first a topic for speculation — predates their ties.

“The $64 question was why they weren’t being grown in California,” Evans said. “Maybe it was too hot and they wouldn’t get juicy, they’d dry out or wouldn’t set. We couldn’t for the life of us figure out why Europe and Morocco had so many and the U.S. had none.”

To learn why, executives visited Spain, Morocco and South Africa. Plantings followed. Sun Pacific emerged with a big market share for easy-to-peel, seedless citrus, if not a clear answer.

“I’ve never taken a poll of California growers, but to this day I’ve got my hunches why they weren’t grown here,” Evans said.

With roots in Los Angeles County agriculture, he was a stockbroker until 25 when a successful ranch investment drew him into the industry. At 69, he still has more up his sleeve.

“We’re launching a brand this fall,” he said. “You’ll hear about it.”