Tap into Florida’s spring bounty of fresh produce.
Originally printed in the March 2023 issue of Produce Business.
There’s much more to Florida than sun, sand and sea. This is especially true in the spring. While northern climates in the Southeast, Northeast and Midwest, as well as Eastern Canada, are frozen and snow-covered, the Sunshine State’s subtropical and tropical climate makes it the place for produce buyers to go for fresh fruits and vegetables from November to May. The production window of March to May is especially key for crops like tomatoes, watermelon, sweet corn, bell peppers and strawberries.
“Florida is a produce powerhouse,” Christina Morton, APR, director of communications for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association (FFVA), in Maitland, FL. “At a time when much of the country is emerging from the winter months, a wide variety of nutritious, fresh Florida-grown produce will be harvested to hit grocery store shelves. The sheer variety of specialty crops grown in Florida (more than 300) makes our state unique, and our climate certainly gives us an advantage over other growing regions.”
Florida fruits and vegetables provide a significant supply and sales boost to retailers.
“Florida produce is freshly-picked, packed and delivered to supermarkets within days, says Susie McKinley, director of marketing and development for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS), in Tallahassee, FL.
“An extensive transportation network that includes international airports, shipping ports, multi-modal hubs and rail and highway networks, helps ensure fresh produce gets to customers quickly. Less time in transit means a longer shelf life, better quality and fresh flavor.”
Florida is the supply source for many vegetables sold each spring at Morton Williams Supermarkets, a 16-store chain based in Bronx, NY. “Florida marks the start of the domestic season and then supplies move north from there as the weather warms,” says Marc Goldman, produce director.
“Peppers, cucumbers, eggplant, lettuces like leaf and romaine, and other greens such as kale and collards all come from Florida this time of year,” he adds. “The biggest items now are tomatoes, sweet corn and strawberries. By May, Florida watermelon is getting underway.”
Consumers look for local and U.S.-grown products when they shop, adds McKinley. “With the widely-recognized ‘Fresh From Florida’ logo, consumers can clearly identify the origin of Florida fruits and vegetables.”
“Selling Florida-grown produce is important for us because we’re focused on the best. Fresh and local is a win-win for everyone,” says Earl McGrath, produce director for Freshfields Farm, in Orlando, FL, which operates a second location in Jacksonville, FL. “Fresh, local and organic is another plus. We order mixed pallets of a half dozen different vegetables from Lady Moon Farms in the spring.”
Lady Moon Farms, headquartered in Chambersburg, PA, has growing locations in Punta Gorda, Immokalee and Loxahatchee, FL.
The ‘Fresh From Florida’ grown tag ensures better food safety through traceability and years of honing the edge of quality, says Chuck Weisinger, CEO of Weis-Buy Farms Inc., in Fort Myers, FL. “Florida farmers, despite labor problems, have ensured this through the use of drone technology as well as zealous conservation of our water resources.”
WEATHER A CHALLENGE
Weather, from hurricanes in the fall to freezes in the winter, can affect the availability of Florida spring produce. According to a Feb. 9, 2023, report, Estimated Agricultural Losses Resulting from Hurricane Ian, from the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) Economic Impact Analysis Program, agricultural losses totaled $1.03 billion. Of this, vegetables and melons represented $204.6 million, non-citrus fruits $137.7 million and field and row crops $130.2 million.
The upside of the spring crop timing is that weather-related damage or shortages are either over or nearly over.
“We start planting in early September and plant every week until mid-to-late February,” says Adam Lytch, operations manager for the Raleigh, NC-headquartered L&M Cos., with farming operations in Florida.
The fall plantings proved challenging due to two hurricanes, he adds. When Hurricane Ian hit last September, the farm was planting peppers in the south and cukes and squash in central Florida, and the two latter crops were affected by wind. That crop has already been harvested and sold.
“In November, Hurricane Nicole in northeast Florida did more damage,” Lytch says. “By then we had 700 to 800 acres planted, compared to only 100 in September. The rain from Nicole, then the freeze in December, delayed our St. Patrick’s Day cabbage planting. Nice weather since has made up some of the time, but we won’t have as normal of a crop as in past years. Early to mid-April crops will be the first ‘normal’ production.”
Similarly, John Alderman, eastern sales manager for Duda Farm Fresh Foods Inc., in Oviedo, FL, says the company experienced a serious freeze in mid-December “that affected our availability of sweet corn until mid- to late-March. But volumes will return quickly with ‘post freeze’ plantings and will ramp up quickly in April.”
TOP SPRING CROPS
In the spring, Florida supplies the earliest domestic crop of tomatoes, peppers, strawberries, blueberries, sweet corn and watermelon. Florida also provides a steady supply of cabbage, potatoes, green beans and squash throughout the season.
TOMATOES. In 2020, Florida ranked first in the U.S. in the value of production for fresh market tomatoes, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Agricultural Statistics Services (NASS) data.
“Field-grown tomatoes dominate the Florida deal,” says Weis-Buy’s Weisinger. “The state, through its public university system, is constantly working through research and development to create improved varieties with a longer shelf life that make Florida tomatoes a value buy. Plus, since Florida’s season hits its favorable peak just as shorts and bathing suit season starts in the greater U.S., it’s the perfect time to promote tomatoes for health and diet.”
WATERMELON. Like tomatoes, Florida ranked number one in the U.S. in 2020 in its production value of watermelon, according to USDA NASS statistics.
“Our Florida watermelon season typically starts around the second week of April. The soil and the spring temperatures produce a consistently high brix or sweet taste to the crop,” says Scott McDulin, vice president of marketing and retail sales for the H.C. Schmieding Produce Co. LLC, in West Palm Beach, FL.
Seedless watermelon rules, as does the popularity of 15- to 18-pounders.
“May is peak, with Memorial Day a big holiday for Florida watermelon. We ship everything in bins,” says David Waters, sales manager with Always Fresh Farms, LLC, in Plant City, FL.
Of note, the Florida Watermelon Association provides its members with an opportunity to schedule personal appearances of the 2023 Florida Watermelon Queen for retail partners.
SWEET CORN. Florida ranked third in the nation in the production value of fresh market sweet corn in 2020, and “April and May are the promo time for sweet corn from Florida,” says Brett Bergmann, president at Hugh H. Branch Inc., in South Bay, FL.
Most retailers want bi-color or yellow corn, according to Alessio Verrelli, sales manager at J&J Family of Farms, in Wellington, FL. “Some retailers want to run a special two-week white corn ad. We’ll grow that specifically for them and lock it in.”
Value-added sweet corn, specifically four- and five-ear tray packs are seeing more movement, says Schmieding Produce’s McDulin. “Consumers like to see retail multiples. With inflation, and input costs going up due to increases in seed, fertilizer, pallets and packaging, expect to see retail pricing in ranges like 10 ears for $4.49 or 12 for $4.99. Aggressive pricing would be eight for $2. Usually, retailers like to promote to start the season and around Memorial Day, depending on the weather in their markets.”
BELL PEPPERS. Some 70% of the Florida bell pepper crop sold by J&J Family of Farms is green, says Verrelli, and the promotional peak is in March. He says most retailers want either Jumbo 40- to 45-count or Extra Large 50- to 55-count sized peppers sold bulk in bushel boxes.
“Packaging is expensive. For example, a box of four- to six-count bagged green peppers may be twice the cost of a bulk box of green peppers. Hence, many retailers have a preference for bulk.”
The company grows red, yellow and orange bells in Florida, too, although Verrelli says these represent only a fraction of the demand for green bells.
However, demand exceeds supply for peppers such as jalapeños, poblanos, cubanelles and serranos, which the company also grows in Florida.
STRAWBERRIES & BLUEBERRIES. In 2020, Florida ranked second in the U.S. in its production value of strawberries, according to USDA NASS statistics.
“Strawberries are in full harvest through Easter in April. We do 1-pound, 2-pound and stem packs,” says Always Fresh Farms’ Waters.
A potential freight cost advantage, especially for East Coast retailers, is to stick with Florida strawberries longer in the spring, rather than switching to crops from California or Mexico, suggests Nick Wishnatzki, public relations manager for Wish Farms, in Plant City, FL.
“Some of the best berries grow in late March to mid-April. For us, we have processing markets for our berries such that we only ship the best quality in fresh.”
Wish Farms was the first commercial operation to grow organic strawberries in Florida.
The company grows organic blueberries in the Sunshine State, too. Quality issues in imports will make Florida blueberries an anticipated buy. Availability is typically mid-March through late May.
“First of the season is a huge marketing plus. Our crop goes within days from field to store,” says Wishnatzki.
Pineberries, available February through April, are new to Florida’s spring offerings. The pale pink berry is like a strawberry in flavor with an added hint of pineapple flavor. Wish Farms is one of the state’s growers of this berry.
“We still need to educate consumers about pineberries. To that end, we’ve been digitally targeting ads with retailers on their platforms and tapping into social media with retail coupons and geotagged video and story ads with our partner retailers. We’ve seen a nice pick up in sales as a result,” says Wishnatzki.
POTATOES. New crop Florida potatoes are a big hit with customers at Freshfields Farm, says McGrath. “We source them directly from Mack Farms.”
Mack Farms, headquartered in Lake Wales, FL, grows all varieties of new crop potatoes from February to June on two Florida farms.
CABBAGE, GREEN BEANS, SQUASH & OTHER VEGGIES. Florida ranked third in the nation in the production value of cabbage in 2020, based on USDA NASS data.
“Cabbage is a big deal for us in March for St. Patrick’s Day. We’ve also expanded our production of Asian vegetables, including flat and Napa cabbage,” says L&M Cos.’ Lytch.
Like many companies, L&M grows a full line of vegetables in Florida, including cucumbers, yellow squash, zucchini, eggplant, broccoli, greens and tomatoes.
“We’ve really seen an explosion in demand for other brassica vegetables like kale, cauliflower and broccoli. I think this is driven by providing a good value for good health, and that’s important during this inflationary time,” Lytch adds.
BUY & SELL MORE
Florida-grown tomatoes, green beans and squash are among the fresh produce items promoted at Publix, a Lakeland, FL-headquartered retailer that operates more than 1,300 store locations in seven Southeast states.
“Products can be displayed on end caps and/or bins with ‘Florida Local’ signage attached. They’re promoted in our ad several weeks during the season with the ‘Fresh from Florida’ icon,” says Maria Brous, director of communications.
‘Fresh From Florida’ is the FDACS program that promotes the state’s agricultural products. During peak season, ‘Fresh From Florida’ marketing engages shoppers via consumer campaigns and partnerships with 100-plus domestic and international retailers to drive shoppers to look for and choose ‘Fresh From Florida’ products. The campaign runs from January through June with a combination of media advertising including TV, streaming video, social media, digital display, print ads and more.
“Retailers can take advantage of the ‘Fresh From Florida’ brand reach by sourcing and promoting Florida produce. ‘Fresh From Florida’ branded signage is very important to selling more Florida produce. This includes shelf talkers, QR codes for more information, cross merchandising and attractive displays,” says the FDACS’ McKinley.
“Retailers may also develop campaigns around a Florida commodity to tell the growers’ story, using social media, in-store displays and weekly flyers. For example, last year The Fresh Market promoted Florida pineberries and citrus in its monthly e-magazine.”
New this spring is the ‘Fresh From Florida’ produce bin promotion. These evergreen display bins are not commodity specific, so retailers can feature a rotating selection of Florida produce. FDACS also provides the ‘Fresh From Florida’ branded bins to retail partners, to use as end caps or stand-alone floor displays.
Through the retail incentive program, FDACS provides monetary incentives to grocery retailers for promoting Florida produce in their stores using the ‘Fresh From Florida’ brand. In Fiscal Year 2021-2022, some 78 commodities were promoted.
“There are several spring holidays and sporting events that make great promotional opportunities for Florida produce,” the FDACS’ McKinley adds. “From St. Patrick’s Day to The Kentucky Derby, spring is full of merchandising opportunities for retailers. Retailers can promote complementary products, display recipe cards and feature the ‘Fresh From Florida’ logo alongside Florida produce in weekly circulars.”