A Taste of the South

Crate of Peaches

The benefits of marketing its delicious fruit.

The coming of Spring can be counted on for the birds heading north, baseball games and some of the best fruit from the Southern states being harvested for consumption.

The months of April, May and June are the perfect time for grocery retailers to spotlight their produce offerings, as some of the year’s freshest peaches, watermelons, blueberries, strawberries, tropicals and other popular Southern fruit offerings become available. Georgia has become a blueberry powerhouse. The state is now the largest East Coast producer, following Washington and Oregon. Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and other southern states ship ample supplies of fruits for spring promotions.

Because southern fruit ships during two of the summer’s most important holidays, Memorial Day and Independence Day, the commodities work well in retail promotions, according to Greg Leger, president and owner of Leger & Son Inc., in Cordele, GA. Leger & Son is a leading watermelon grower-shipper. Adverse growing conditions, however, which include drought and heavy rains, can affect supplies.

Southern fruit remains a shopper favorite. “Southern fruit is grown with heart,” says Angela O’Neal-Chappell, director of sustainability and marketing for Coosaw Farms, headquartered in Fairfax, SC. “We’re a patchwork quilt of farms, farming families and organizations that are so dedicated to the land and its ability to cultivate the purity of fruit,” she says. “The consumer loves flavor. We know it’s embraced by the letters and emails we receive from consumers letting us know our watermelon label has been stuck to the refrigerator for 10 months, or they froze our blueberries, waiting all year for Coosaw Farms to be in their local store again.”

Kevin Hardison, horticultural marketing specialist for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, Raleigh, NC, says people are looking for healthy and nutritious foods, and many of the southern fruit products meet this request. Still, he knows people like new things, so not everything is about the “typical” southern fruit people have come to expect. “Growers are often looking for new varieties so they can maximize the efficiency and the margins,” he says. “We help growers come up with marketing plans to succeed in the industry and find new markets any way we can. We also work with a wide variety of buyers and wholesalers.” Those efforts include advertising, working on social media and getting the word out about the products any way it can.

In South Carolina, watermelons and cantaloupes begin shipping in mid-June and are available throughout the summer. Blueberries and strawberries are also available through the summer. According to Martin Eubanks, assistant commissioner of agriculture for the South Carolina Department of Agriculture, headquartered in Columbia, SC, some fruits require more attention in handling. “It’s important for retailers to know where to hold the products in the cool room or a room that’s not so cold so the highest quality product is there on the shelf for the consumer,” he says. The next step is stationing trained produce staff that can answer consumer questions.

Peaches, for example, should be stored above 50 degrees. If they are stored in temperatures from 36 to 50 degrees, the fruit will become mealy and lose its characteristic flavor and texture. Because eastern cantaloupe is different from western cantaloupe, if retailers store eastern cantaloupe in colder areas, instead of the recommended storage at 57 to 58 degrees, the fruit won’t produce the desired quality, says Eubanks. “You can take a good product and ruin it in a hurry just by improper storage,” he says.

The Blueberry Crop

Florida is the first domestic blueberry-producing region of the spring. The state’s south, central and northern growing regions serve as the transition from Chilean production, which typically begins winding down in March and finishes by early April. Florida typically begins harvesting by late March and early April, and usually finishes in late May. The Florida Blueberry Growers Association, Brooksville, FL, has reported early estimates on the season are looking better than in 2015 and 2016.

Al Finch, president of Florida Classic Growers in Dundee, FL, says the upcoming southern fruit season is mixed, though he does foresee an overall strong season. “For blueberries, we had very light volume early because of a weather event with very low temperatures, which is abnormal for mid-March,” he says. “We look to get back into harvesting the blueberries toward the third week of March. The outlook for the season is very good. Last year was our first year of marketing blueberries. We should see volume of five times what it was last year.”

Florida production typically overlaps the start of Georgia’s two seasons. The southern highbush production usually begins in mid- to late April and finishes in late May. Rabbit eye varieties begin in late May and finish in early July. South Carolina and North Carolina usually start shipments in mid- to late-May. South Carolina generally finishes by mid-June while North Carolina ends in early- to mid-July.

In South Carolina, Coosaw Farms will harvest Southern highbush blueberries mid-April through mid-June, as well as watermelons. Its location allows it to ship to a variety of retail customers, says O’Neal-Chappell. “South Carolina is positioned in the middle of a high concentration of growth,” she says. “We can ship north, south and west from our farm and reach retail distribution centers with truly fresh-picked flavors to enjoy.”

Just Peachy

In the past, Georgia was the first U.S.-producing region to begin peach harvesting. In recent years, new low-chill varieties have helped Florida enter the March to mid-May window, when peaches aren’t usually available after Chile begins lessening shipments in March. Florida growers usually begin harvesting in mid- to late-March and finish by mid-May, ahead of Georgia’s typical mid- to late May commencement. South Carolina usually begins later in May. Georgia production can run through mid-August, while South Carolina typically ends by late August and early September. Virginia and West Virginia production begins in mid-July and also ends by early September.

Will McGehee, marketing director for the Georgia Peach Council and Pearson Farm’s Genuine Georgia Group, based in Macon, GA, says flavor is king with today’s demanding customers. “Southern fruit is synonymous with sweet and summertime,” he says. “Georgia peaches generally kick off in late-May and are the perfect prelude into flavor-filled summer. Draw a line from west Texas up to the Dakotas — any market from that line to the Eastern seaboard is the market for sweet Georgia peaches.”

Titan Farms in Ridge Spring, SC, is one of the largest East Coast peach grower-shippers. South Carolina is the second-biggest fresh peach-producing state. “As a company, we grow and ship more peaches than Georgia,” says Daryl Johnson, vice president of sales and marketing.

Titan Farms’ upper south location allows it to ship to customers throughout the East Coast. “We are able to ship to the East Coast quickly and efficiently thanks to our proximity, and therefore provide fresh peaches and better flavor,” says Chalmers Carr, president and chief executive. “All of our products are fully supported with marketing materials available to the retailer, which will help them in their efforts to better market the fruit.”

This year will mark Florida Classic Growers’ seventh season of offering tree-ripened peaches. The company produces on 700 acres. According to Finch, harvesting began in mid-March and will soon hit promotable volume. “These are ready-to-eat,” says Finch. “This is a true free-ripened peach that consumers don’t have to take home from the store and place on the counter for three days to ripen.”

Watermelons On A Roll

As many Georgia and Carolinas growers begin watermelon harvesting from south and central Florida in mid- to late-April, May is when bigger domestic volumes typically commence. In early June, Georgia usually starts harvesting and can overlap with north Florida production, which begins by late May and runs through mid-June.

Retail displays and signage are critical for effective watermelon promotions. While some retailers merchandise watermelons in single bins, more innovative retailers display the fruit in up to six bins. “They dedicate more floor space and more marketing to the fruit,” says Leger & Son’s Leger. Along with pumpkins, watermelons are one of the produce department’s largest-sized fruit, and therefore, occupy more space. “While that may be one of the downfalls in produce, it can also be an opportunity to use that bin as a billboard,” says Leger. “Watermelon is a billboard opportunity, which is the package. A high-graphic bin draws consumers to at least take a look, if placed in the right place in the store. ”

“Couple your personal and local grower stories with elements of the broader commodity groups and the merchandising tools offered through the states for on-trend messaging with local heart.”

— Angela O’Neal-Chappell, Coosaw Farms

Along with high-graphic bins, proper signage on the bins aids in merchandising. Retailers should also consider promoting the liquid refreshment the fruit provides. “They should have signage to promote the watermelon and the hydration of the fruit,” says Jordan Carter, Leger & Son’s director of sales and marketing. “Retail dietitians are trying to hit on the fact that with watermelons, it’s all about hydration, which is a big selling point for parents and kids, especially with the summer.”

Coosaw Farms’ O’Neal-Chappell recommends retailers take advantage of materials provided by shippers. “Use your resources,” she advises. “Couple your personal and local grower stories with elements of the broader commodity groups and the merchandising tools offered through the states for on-trend messaging with local heart.”

Tropicals On The Rise

Brooks Tropicals LLC, in Homestead, FL, grows and packs SlimCado avocados, carambola, guava, passion fruit, lychee, dragon fruit, jack fruit, sapodilla, mamey and various other tropical fruits in South Florida.

Peter M. Leifermann, sales and procurement director, says heirloom varieties and small, specialty crops are as sought-after as ever, while demand for full-flavor, unique varieties — not just regular availability — is strong and growing. “The South Florida region offers a broad range of climates and growing conditions,” he says. “By developing strong relationships with southern grower-shippers, retailers can pull from seven different USDA hardiness zones; the South offers the only practical sub-tropical production.”

Because of their unique nature and the maturing palate of the consumer, tropical fruits represent a hot commodity, says Leifermann. Due to its ease of use, carambola is becoming mainstream and can be eaten out of hand.

The somewhat limited availability of exotics, including lychee, passion fruit and dragon fruit grabs consumers’ attention and desire for something new. Brooks Tropicals is developing a Florida red guava and new passion fruit varieties that Leifermann says will “really knock your socks off with their taste.” The company is also continuing to plant its patented avocado varieties that will help it extend the Florida season into March.

Unity Groves, a grower, packer and shipper based in Homestead, FL, primarily deals in tropicals. Louie Carricarte, president and owner, says there has been an increasing interest in these fruits in the past year, which has helped his farm expand. “We do about 150,000 bushels each year, but we’re expecting closer to 300,000 this year,” he says. “Tropicals is our main product; the demand for the different fruits has really risen year to year.”

This year Carricarte expects avocados to be a bumper crop, as early signs point to one of its best growing seasons in years. He also expects mangos, mamey, guava and dragon fruit to have a good year.

Local Interest

Most produce grown in Georgia is shipped out of state, according to University of Georgia research cited by Matthew Kulinski, deputy director of marketing for the Georgia Department of Agriculture, Atlanta. “Most of the fresh fruits and vegetables leave the state because the growers produce large volumes relative to the state’s population. Before July Fourth, Georgia is one of the biggest watermelon-producing regions that ships fruit to retailers throughout the entire East Coast,” he says.

Expanding interest in local produce also helps move volume. “Georgia is uniquely positioned for local promotions,” says Kulinski. “Our growers can grow a variety of different products. In Georgia Grown, the state has a great brand and high name recognition. Georgia is nationally renowned for peaches and Vidalia onions. It’s starting to spread that recognition to items like blueberries, watermelons, corn and southern vegetables. We will start to see Georgia promoting its fruits and vegetables more and more outside the state.”

Local allows buyers to capture the essence of where they live, according to Coosaw Farms’ O’Neal-Chappell. South Carolina effectively captures and communicates the state’s edible aura through “Certified SC Grown” and “Fresh on the Menu” programs. Coosaw Farms features the Certified SC seal in packing and labeling blueberries and watermelons, which then connects to its recognition in stores through the broad Certified SC Grown branding. The state’s marketing program also includes roadside stands, chalkboard menus, social media, as well as billboards and glossy print materials. “You’re connected to a season, soil and climate in a culinary form,” she says.

Expanding Distribution

While the primary distribution range for southern fruit growers remains the Southeast, Northeast, eastern Midwest and Canada, most growers will ship anywhere, including Southern California and the Pacific Northwest. The way to be successful is to take post-harvest steps like hydro-cooling and other measures to ensure the best fruit lands on the shelf.

Coosaw Farms ships throughout the East Coast. “While a concentration of distribution is the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic, our reach is from north of New England to south of Miami,” says O’Neal-Chappell. “Every season is different and dictated by supply needs.”

Leger & Son ships watermelon throughout the eastern U.S. and Canada, as well as North Dakota, Wisconsin, Missouri and Texas. Depending on Texas and Arizona production, the company often trucks loads to California. “Unless there’s a crop failure or issues in the West, we can go west to help out,” says Leger.

Titan Farms distributes peaches throughout the Southeast and Northeast, primarily east of the Mississippi River. Some of its leading retail customers are in Canada. However, it often ships to retail customers in the Midwest; peaches can sometimes travel as far west as Denver. In the past few years, Titan Farms has even exported peaches to Mexico. In 2015, the grower-shipper sent a large amount to Mexico, but in 2016, it didn’t send as much.

Titan Farms remains one of a few southeastern growers to have received governmental approval to ship to Mexico. “The benefits of being in the South and Mid-Atlantic is geography lends to quicker arrival times, better quality, and less lead time for placing orders and receiving product,” says Johnson. “It allows retailers to have quicker turns. In a nutshell, it enhances efficiency of the job the buyer does.”

Merchandising Matters

The Southern fruit season typically starts in May and runs through February, depending on the crop. Promotions can be found almost every month. Savvy retailers will make sure they are marketing the ripest fruit at peak times.

“Fruit consumption is such an integral part of a healthy diet, but many consumers don’t fully realize that sweet, ripe fruit can be a delicious and nutritious dessert,” says Leifermann. “A great tip for retailers is to pair a variety of fruits with chocolate or hazelnut dipping sauces, whipped cream and powdered sugar.”

Carricarte notes sales of southern fruit — especially tropicals — have increased due to retailers giving them a chance on the shelves. “

They are sampling the items and introducing customers to tastes they’ve never experienced before. It’s like mangos, which 20 years ago no one really knew much about; now everyone loves them. I see dragon fruit and guava really taking off in this way.”

Maria Brous, director of community relations for Publix Super Markets Inc., in Lakewood, FL, says the retailer highlights southern fruit offerings in its stores, just as it does every season. “Publix believes deeply in communicating with its customers and associates about the importance of the seasonality of fruit,” she says. “This is achieved through our program, ‘At Season’s Peak,’ which highlight the benefits of each fruit and its optimal flavor profile.”

Through the At Season’s Peak program, Publix shares information in-store, on radio and TV, and via digital advertising for several southern fruits, including strawberries in February and March; mixed berries in June; peaches and nectarines in July and August; honeydews and cantaloupes in August; and honeydews and cantaloupe in September.

“As a Southeastern retailer, we benefit from the local relationships we’ve formed over the decades and are proud to showcase our suppliers,” says Brous.

North Carolina Department of Agriculture’s Hardison says cross-promotion in the store can also boost sales, and retailers should be creative.

“For strawberries, matching them with chocolate or champagne is always a great idea,” he says. “I’ve even seen strawberries marketed with meats, so there’s really no end to what retailers can do to help promote them.”

Of course, with unpredictable weather patterns, retailers need to be ready to act on a moment’s notice. That means having back-up plans for marketing items in case certain items are not available when expected.