FLORIDA STRAWBERRIES COME TO LIFE IN WINTER

Originally printed in the December 2018 issue of Produce Business.

The Sunshine State’s important role in supplying retailers tasty berries.

Florida is well known as a key supplier of strawberries during the winter. Plant City, FL, the hub of the state’s production, is known as the “winter strawberry capital of the world.” Florida strawberries offer retails and consumers a “Taste of Florida sunshine all winter long.”

Florida’s reputation for quality strawberries is well-known, says Nick Wishnatzki, marketing projects manager with Plant City’s Wish Farms. “Florida’s weather during this time hits the sweet spot for strawberry growing,” he says. “Besides its fertile ground and abundant natural resources, the cool nights and warm days during this period are a great recipe for not only strong yield, but also great-tasting berries. Berry shoppers look forward to the Florida strawberry season and seek out berries grown here.”

The timing of Florida’s strawberries is unique, says Shawn Pollard, salesman with Astin Strawberry Exchange LLC in Plant City. “We can offer the first domestically grown strawberries for the New Year,” he says. “It’s the flavor profile of the berries. They’re very flavorful. It’s the uniqueness of the varieties we grow.”

That flavor helps differentiate the state’s berries. “Florida is known for tasty fruit,” says Aaron Grimes, salesman with Plant City’s Grimes Produce Co. LLC. “During the winter, we are putting out a lot more berries than California. Our quality is better than Mexican fruit during that time. Florida is a longtime grower-shipper and supplier of strawberries. Everyone in Florida puts up a good pack.”

Florida’s warm and dry weather during the winter is ideal for strawberry production while the other strawberry growing regions experience cold and wet weather, notes Matt Sumner, a salesman with Always Fresh Farms, which is based in Winter Haven, FL. “What makes Florida strawberries unique is the varieties unique to Florida that emphasize flavor and color,” he says. “We are able to make deliveries to most of the Eastern Seaboard in one to two days to ensure very fresh fruit, which allows for wintertime promotions of domestic product.”

NUMEROUS ADVANTAGES

Florida possesses many advantages for producing winter strawberries during the winter. “It is an area known for producing good-quality strawberries in the early winter months,” says Craig Casca, executive officer and director of sales for Red Blossom, based in Los Olivos, CA. “Retailers have a chance to increase sales during the wintertime. Florida gives a fuller season for all retailers for strawberries.”

Florida’s winter shipments come during a key time for a region that has been growing strawberries since the early 1900s. “Obviously, the timing makes our deal unique,” says Chris Smith, sales manager for BBI Produce, Inc., in Dover, FL. “The temperature, the timing and the climate are right for that time of the year. This is a good spot for strawberry production.”

Elrod’s Cost Plus Supermarket in Dallas, TX, sources Florida strawberries through Affiliated Foods in Lubbock, TX. The Carrollton, TX-based GE Foodland operates four Foodland Markets and five Elrod’s Cost Plus Supermarkets in the Dallas-Fort Worth, TX, area. Tommy Melton, produce supervisor, says Florida berries make for good promotions.

“When they get the Florida strawberries in, that’s what we promote,” he says. “We promote what can get through them. Florida strawberries are very important because the quality is a big deal. They’re very ripe. They’re always nice-sized strawberries that we can promote.”

FRESHNESS, SEASONALITY MATTER

Florida plays a critical role in helping California grower-shippers supply retail customers during the winter. The moderate temperature and rich soil factors contribute to making agricultural production successful in California and Florida, says Dan Crowley, vice president of sales and marketing for Well-Pict, Inc., headquartered in Watsonville, CA.

A key benefit of utilizing Florida growers is taking advantage of the season. “While our independent California growers are in their off-season, using Florida farms allow us to utilize a bicoastal supply and fill the winter supply gap for our retailers and their customers,” says Crowley. “This means we are able to offer the same fresh, premium berries year-round, across the world, without compromising value or quality.”

Harps Food Stores likes to promote Florida winter strawberries. With increased freight rates, the proximity of Florida’s production helps with logistics, says Mike Roberts, director of produce operations for the Springdale, AR-based chain, which operates 87 stores in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Kansas. “We do a lot and want to do more, especially with all the new trucking regulations,” he says. “Being a little closer, the Southeast production helps. We do a ton of them.”

The freshness angle is crucial, says Sue Harrell, director of marketing for the Florida Strawberry Growers Association (FSGA), which is based in Dover. “Freshness and flavor are the key to success at the retail level,” she says. “That means consumers want a strawberry that looks fresh, tastes great and has a longer shelf life. Florida is the largest producer of fresh strawberries in the U.S. during the winter months. In the winter months, we have fresh Florida strawberries that go from field to table within three days.”

Florida grower-shippers distribute primarily to buyers in the East and in the Midwest.

Though Grimes Produce sends berries to Texas and Kansas City, that’s about as far west as the grower-shipper goes on a regular basis. “We can get to the East Coast faster than anyone,” says Grimes. “It’s a one- to two-day trip. That helps with the freshness. Customers like our fruit’s flavor, quality, sizing and shape.”

FLORIDA, THE RIGHT SPOT TO SHIP STRAWBERRIES

Red Blossom doesn’t ship any loads to the West Coast, says Casca. “This past year, trucking was tight from all regions, but once Florida gets rolling, there seems to be ample truck supply, which means more reliable deliveries,” he says. “Florida strawberries have good color, great taste and more shelf life due to the closer proximity to East Coast retailers.”

With escalating freight costs, Florida strawberries play a critical role in keeping retail stores competitive, says Joe Pascarella, director of sales for Goodson Farms, Inc., based in Wimauma, FL. “It’s the proximity and that closeness in distribution,” he says. “The biggest thing is with the new e-logs, Florida is 48 hours to everything east of the Mississippi, while Mexican strawberries are 24 hours to 48 hours to get to the border. The importance of Florida strawberries is to help maintain the availability of U.S.-grown product.”

Logistics issues are becoming more critical. “The trucking deal is extremely tight, and there are fewer trucks on the road,” says BBI’s Smith. The new regulations make it more difficult to get to places and it takes longer, he says. “Truckers prefer Florida,” says Smith. “The advantages from a transportation standpoint are getting even better for us. That doesn’t mean it isn’t costing us more, but it’s still better for us than anyone else. There are more products here, the whole vegetable crop in the South and in Florida. There are more miles truckers must run to other areas farther away. We can be there a lot sooner to our clientele, the eastern half of the U.S., and Canada, too.”

Florida’s location also helps shippers. As a coastal state, Florida offers easy access to many options for quickly transporting goods to other areas of the country and the world, says Crowley.

“Incorporating Florida berries into our sales model means we can offer premium strawberries year-round to a wider market,” he says. “In turn, East Coast retailers can benefit from the sales of a consistent, quality strawberry supply during the fall and winter seasons where they normally might not have that additional boost.”

One of the most noticeable characteristics of Florida strawberries is they tend to hold more water, which makes them juicier, says Wish Farms’ Wishnatzki. Typically, Florida strawberry varieties are red all the way through. “California strawberries can be similar in size, but they tend to have more of a heartier texture and a more hollow center,” he says. “This is partly due to breeding that takes into account the long distances these berries typically have to travel.”

WHEN CUSTOMERS SEE RED, IT’S A GOOD THING!

Andrew Wulf, senior director of strawberry product leadership at Driscoll’s, Watsonville, CA, recommends erecting large, refrigerated displays prominently displayed in the produce department. “Knowing that strawberries in particular are the gateway to the produce aisle, and that the produce aisle really differentiates any retailer from its competition, you need to put these berries out front and center,” he says.

Keeping the berries fresh is critical. “Show how you differentiate in terms of quality by making sure consumers get the freshest berries,” says Wulf. “Keep the ordering fresh, keep the velocity moving at the consumer level by making sure you’re continually receiving fresh berries. Also, maintain cooled fruit. Draw attention not only to any sales and ads, but also to the fresh aspects of it and the quality of the berries.”

Displays must be well-maintained. “Full displays of fresh Florida strawberries need to be restocked and rotated during the day and always kept full,” says Harrell. “Always keep Florida strawberries fresh by placing them on refrigerated tables and display cases.”

The best way to merchandise Florida Strawberries is in a lead location or in a high-traffic, visible area where consumers can see that they are in season, advises Astin’s Pollard. “Expanding the space on Florida strawberries and grouping all the berries together to create a one-stop location for berries is a proven success,” he says.

Retailers shouldn’t be afraid to display strawberries in other locations. “A satellite display outside of produce is an incremental sale after the consumer has left the produce area,” says Pollard. “Merchandising near the bakery or ice-cream section are great areas for additional displays or even near the cash registers for final purchases. Cross-merchandise tie-ins like strawberry glaze, pound cakes, chocolate dips, milk-shake mixes and whipped cream to suggest dessert and entertaining options.

As always, use good signage to promote strawberries.”

Always Fresh’s Sumner recommends merchandising Florida strawberries in 1- and 2-pound clamshells at aggressive retail prices. “Promote, promote, promote,” he says. “Strawberries are an impulse item that need to be merchandised in a prominent location.” Sumner says the Florida Department of Agriculture’s Fresh from Florida point-of-sale material and marketing dollars can help retailers sell more fruit.

ADD A SPLASH OF HOLIDAY COLOR

The colorful Florida fruit plays well during winter holidays.

“We cover all the holidays, from Christmas to Valentine’s Day,” Pollard says. Those are great periods to promote Florida’s domestic strawberries. Flavor sells. It’s all about the flavor profile. When consumers have a positive experience, they will come back and purchase more.”

Adds Harrell, “Holidays are our business; we are bright red and green and perfect for your holiday displays,” says Harrell.

Cake and whipped cream are not the only complementary items consumers look to pair with strawberries. Recipes for healthy salads, smoothies, desserts and even savory dishes incorporate fresh strawberries. Consumers love recipes and are always looking for creative ways to introduce fruit to their diet, says Harrell. The FSGA offers recipes on its website and social media channels, which it can share with retailers. The organization also sponsors numerous contests during the season to promote buying fresh Florida strawberries.

Cross-merchandising works well throughout the season, says Well-Pict’s Crowley. “Retailers can cross-market our berries with football, school, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, and Valentines themes, just to name a few, and other marketable opportunities that might not jibe with a traditional berry season,” he says.

ADDING TO THE MIX

To stay competitive in the fresh strawberry business, Florida varieties continue to improve in flavor and shelf life. The state offers new varieties that will be in the marketplace this year. “The goal is to develop varieties that meet or exceed consumer expectations, as well as being sustainable for the grower,” says Kenneth Parker, FSGA’s executive director. University of Florida varieties account for 90 percent of Florida’s production acres, he says.

As some of Astin’s plots are located close to the University of Florida’s Balm, FL, research center, researchers conduct trials in Astin’s fields. “They spend a lot of time on our farms and are committed to developing new and improved varieties,” says Pollard. “Researchers are there frequently looking at varieties, trials and sharing information, which is very beneficial.” Pollard cites the Brilliance and Sensation varieties as well-performing varieties. The recently introduced Beauty variety continues to increase acreage.

This season, Red Blossom is growing Brilliance. “They look promising for size and shipper quality,” says Casca. “They are hearty for shipping and eat very well.”

Florida berries are catching-up with California’s, says Casca. “California grows the best berry because of the lower humidity than what Florida experiences during their season,” he says. “But the difference between California and Florida is decreasing yearly. The Florida growers are getting better at growing. Coolers are state-of-the-art to get field heat out quicker and the shorter transport times also help.”

This season, Driscoll’s plans to ship Prado, a premium variety, on a limited basis, but is looking to expand on the special label and grow more, says Wulf. “Florida, along with other regions, has been able to put together quite a few genetics in the pipeline that are very flavorful,” he says. “The Florida pipeline is incredibly strong for really flavorful fruit and able to satisfy and delight our consumers, which is what we go for.”

The state’s growers are also well-known. “Florida has a great reputation for bringing a strong tradition of grower that are dedicated to their craft and investing in their communities, as well,” says Wulf. “Every region has its challenges, but Florida is able to react and move forward and still deliver high-quality berries.”

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