Florida Spring Produce Report

Originally printed in the February 2018 issue of Produce Business.

In March, April and May, the Sunshine State casts a towering shadow.

There is nothing like first-of-the-season excitement or the hunger for domestically grown, closer-to-home fresh produce after a winter of imports. That’s where Florida shines. This southern state offers a full season’s jump on traditional summer vegetables and does so during the months of March, April and May, when many growing regions to the north and west are just beginning to thaw.

In fact, a ranking of the Top 10 spring commodities sold in the United States between 2014 and 2017 shows Florida’s average market share represented 100 percent and 75 percent for Temple and Tangelo varieties of orange, respectively. This was followed by sweet corn at 70 percent; escarole, grape tomatoes, green beans and cherry tomatoes each at 55 percent; tangerines (43 percent), tomatoes (41 percent) and endive (40 percent), according to data supplied by the Florida Department of Agriculture.

“During the springtime, the following Florida fruits and vegetables are at their peak: corn, vine-ripe tomatoes, seedless watermelon, strawberries, celery, lettuce, packaged salads, green beans, yellow squash, zucchini, okra, bell peppers, specialty peppers and berries,” says Maria Brous, director of media and community relations for Publix Super Markets, a 1,100-plus-store chain based in Lakeland, FL. “Some of the best sellers include berries, corn and tomatoes.”

Why Florida?

The Sunshine State indeed offers a wide variety of produce in the spring.

L&M Companies, headquartered in Raleigh, NC, is one of Florida’s most diverse farming operations. It has farms in seven different counties and grows more than 35 different items, according to Adam Lytch, operations manager. “We farm southern vegetable items like bell peppers (green, yellow and red), cucumbers, yellow squash, zucchini and chili peppers in North, Central and South Florida. We also farm items like cabbage, broccoli, greens, potatoes and watermelons. Being the first or only state in production on the East Coast certainly helps, but also the seasonality of the items allows for a longer growing season out of Florida than from any other area on many items.”

Although much of Florida’s produce is delivered throughout the Southeast, many growers do ship to the Northeast and Midwest, as well as to Eastern Canada and Europe.

“Florida’s many products available to retailers in promotable volumes reduce the number of pickups, ultimately allowing for full utilization of transportation,” says Jason Bedsole, sales manager for Duda Farm Fresh Foods in Oviedo, FL. “This allows the retailer to maximize efficiencies while reducing freight costs, thus reducing delivered costs to the warehouse.”

For Florida retailers, “the freshness advantage is a huge plus,” says Earl McGrath, produce director for Freshfields Farm, a retailer with locations in Orlando and Jacksonville. “We can often have items on our displays that were in a field 24-48 hours ago. Customers are always looking for fresh product, and the geographical advantages really help exceed expectations. Another advantage of buying and selling Florida-grown products is it allows us to work with and support growers and organizations that operate within our state.”

Yet, Florida does have its challenges.

“Surges in the volume of imported fruits and vegetables, mostly from Mexico, have created difficult market conditions for many of Florida’s spring crops,” explains Aaron Keller, commissioner’s office press secretary at the Florida Department of Agriculture.

Growers have felt this directly and reacted.

“Because of low commodity prices last year, overall acreage will be down an estimated 20 percent this year on mixed veg items like bell pepper and tomatoes,” says Brian Rayfield, vice president of business development for J&J Family of Farms, headquartered in Loxahatchee, FL. “Supply should meet demand, but there won’t be a glut with oversupply.”

The Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association (FFVA), whose mission is to enhance the business and competitive climate for the state’s producers of fruits, vegetables and other crops, is currently working to address this issue.

Spring Crops

Florida ranked first in the United States in the production value of fresh market snap beans, cucumbers, grapefruit, oranges, tomatoes and watermelons in 2016, according to the August 2017-released Statistical Bulletin by the National Agricultural Statistics Service’ Florida Field Office and Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS). It ranked second in production value of bell peppers, sweet corn, squash and strawberries, and third in cabbage.

Sweet corn. The volume of sweet corn harvested from the Belle Glade growing area from late March/early April through Memorial Day has remained steady over the past 5 to 7 years, with production totaling 7.5- to 7.8 million boxes (50 ears per box), according to Mike Aerts, the FFVA’s director of production and supply chain management and head of the association’s Agricultural Exchange Management Group, which includes the Sunshine Sweet Corn Growers of Florida.

All three colors of sweet corn grown in the Belle Glade area are in demand, says Jon Browder, sales manager for the Belle Glade-based Pioneer Growers Co-op. “However, there are different demands in different areas. For example, Texas likes yellow and bi-color, the Atlanta market wants all three colors, and in North Carolina it’s white and bi-color.”

Browder says the best-selling remains husk on bulk corn. However, he adds Pioneer does offers retail packs on all three colors.

New this season, Duda Farm Fresh Foods will introduce its tray pack corn, says Bedsole. “The corn will reduce prep time by offering the sweet corn pre-shucked. The new tray pack corn is available with eye-catching seasonal graphics, showcasing the availability all year long as well as seasonally featured recipes and meal-prep solutions.”

Tomatoes. The Florida tomato industry has the advantage of being the primary local, regional and domestic producer in the United States during the winter and spring, according to Michael Schadler, deputy manager of the Maitland, FL-based Florida Tomato Committee. “However, acreage has been declining over the past decade due to competitive pressure from Mexican imports. Currently, there are around 30,000 acres of tomatoes produced in Florida. We expect the spring crop in 2018 to be similar in volume to 2017, which saw approximately 19 million 25-pound equivalent boxes of tomatoes shipped between mid-March and mid-June.”

Round tomatoes continue to represent most of our crop, with about 75 percent of total production, according to Schadler. “The balance of the production is spread between Roma tomatoes (about 12 percent), grape tomatoes (about 10 percent) and cherry tomatoes (about 3 percent).”

One of the major tomato growers in Florida is Philadelphia-based Procacci Brothers Sales Corp., which grows and ships through Gargiulo Inc., based in Naples, FL, and Santa Sweets Inc., in Plant City, FL The company harvests a variety of tomatoes, including conventional field-grown round, organic grape, vine-ripe, Santa Sweets-brand grape and UglyRipe heirloom.

“Demand now is for high flavor and color variations, and we are working on combining these two attributes and others, such as disease resistance in grape, Roma, round and heirlooms. Our test plots of non-GMO natural hybrids look like a rainbow,” says Rick Feighery, vice president of sales. “For example, we have a mixed heirloom tomato that we’re testing in South Florida this spring.”

Cherry tomatoes are strong, says Feighery. “This is because they offer retailers and consumers alike a midrange price point somewhere between $2.99 and $3.99 per pound.”

Other veggies. “Peppers, squash and eggplant are among items we grow in the spring,” says Steve Veneziano, vice president of sales and operations at Oakes Farms in Immokalee, FL. “For these items, the best promotional time is in April.”

In peppers, L&M’s Lytch says, “We have really expanded our acres on both red and yellow open field bell peppers. We have an exclusive seed variety that we are using to produce these peppers and are excited to continue to see it grow.” Lytch adds that L&M has expanded its organic offering and now has 250 acres of Florida land in production, which includes bell pepper, squash, cucumbers, hard squash, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, dinosaur kale, green and red cabbage.

As for green and yellow squash, C&D Fruit and Vegetable Co. in Bradenton, FL, now packs a 5/9 box size, says Steve O’Brien, vice president. “This allows us to compete with the west in the Northeast market. It’s a bigger box with more weight and hopefully will pay more.”

Pioneer Co-op is a large supplier of green beans in Florida from November to May. “We have whole beans and those that are snipped and bagged for cook-in-bag preparation,” says Browder.

Tropicals. While starfruit season closes in April and doesn’t return until July, May marks the beginning of items such as Florida-grown dragon fruit, lychees and passionfruit, according to Mary Ostlund, marketing director for Brooks Tropicals, in Homestead, FL. “Supplies are limited, but there are no limits on color, textures and great taste. That said, the two biggest tips for enticing retail customers to try Florida tropicals is to sign displays well and add slices to fresh-cut fruit programs. Also, on display, it’s important to show the insides of these fruits.”

Marketing And Promotion

Florida growers, commodity groups and the FDACS offer retailers strong marketing and promotion platforms. For example, Duda Farm Fresh Foods works with its supermarket customers to create in-store and online promotions, while ads and in-store point-of-sale materials are something J&J Family of Farms offers its grocery customers.

“Since we have so many different items, we work with our retail partners on the best time to promote. In addition, we tailor production to meet demands for given promotional periods like, for example, cabbage for St. Patty’s Day, broccoli for Easter and watermelons for Memorial Day,” says L&M’s Lytch.

Forty unique Florida commodities were promoted by the FDACS via its Fresh From Florida brand in retail environments during March, April and May 2017, including a number of fruits, vegetables and other agricultural items. Total retail sales estimated resulting from these promotions totaled $41.9 million. Additionally, 580 total promotional events took place during that span, including circular ads, coupons, samplings and displays.

“We work with more than 70 of the largest grocery retailers in the United States and Canada each year, proving that the Fresh From Florida brand has value and that retailers see it as a means to increase sales and raise awareness of their commitment to source Florida product,” says Keller. “Fresh From Florida will continue to support Florida growers during the 2018 season by incentivizing grocery retailers throughout Florida, the eastern United States and Canada.”

Freshfields Farm and Publix Supermarkets use Fresh From Florida brand signage in-store.

“The signage on display bins makes it easy for customers to easily identify produce from Florida,” says Publix’s Brous.

What’s New in Florida Produce?

Florida’s conducive climate and worthwhile spring window mean growers are always searching for something new to meet consumer demand. Here is a sampling of the latest:

  • Asian vegetables: These crops, which are being grown throughout the state and in much greater concentration in the St. Augustine/Hastings area of North Florida, includes Chinese cabbage, Bok choy, beans, bitter melon, Chinese Broccoli and many other Asian herbs and vegetables, according to Aaron Keller, commissioner’s office press secretary at the Florida Department of Agriculture.
  • Brussels sprouts: Brussels sprouts are another up-and-comer for Florida growers in the Hastings area, as well, says Keller. “Growers in that area have long grown cabbage, but recently branched out to other cole crops such as broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts.”
  • Cabbage: Koolhead branded, sweet and mild-tasting, flat-shaped cabbage is a new program in Florida for L&M Companies. “What we have is a unique looking item that appears different on the shelf that grabs customers attention, but it also tastes fantastic, which we believe will keep the customers coming back for more,” says Adam Lytch, operations manager. “We are doing some new promotions this year on this cabbage and are excited about that.”
  • Peaches: Peaches are still a relatively new item in Florida, says the Florida Department of Agriculture’s Keller. “Consumers and retailers are not conditioned to connect peaches to Florida and we will continue to assist in promoting them.” Peaches harvest in April and May.
  • Peppers: A proprietary seed now enables J&J Family of Farms to produce standard-sized, field-grown red and yellow bell peppers with thicker walls and 10 percent heavier than its hothouse counterpart. The Loxahatchee, FL-headquartered company also started marketing last fall its Sunny Sweets, 1-pound, pouch bag of yellow mini peppers. “These are a little bigger, with higher brix and have fewer seeds than other snacking peppers currently on the market,” says Brian Rayfield, vice president of business development. “We plan to have these in red and orange in the future.”