Florida’s Bountiful Fall and Winter Produce Offerings

Florida CropsPhoto Courtesy of J&J Family of Farms

The‭ ‬“go-to”‭ ‬state provides retailers consistent supply‭.

Eggplants

Photo by Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association

Florida’s long growing season and unique climate provides retail buyers a wide variety of produce. Second only to California in terms of fresh vegetable production, Florida offers retailers many opportunities to simultaneously bring multiple products to the market in an efficient manner, say grower-shippers and distributors. The state’s growing season often comes at a time when Florida is one of a few domestic suppliers in the marketplace — and sometimes the only domestic supplier.

Barring destructive weather, including occasional fall hurricanes, winter freezes and flooding, buyers can expect to receive consistent supplies of a large variety of high-quality fresh produce. Throughout the fall and winter, products range from citrus and strawberries to hot peppers and zucchini squash. The Tallahassee, FL-based Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) lists 34 Fresh from Florida commodities, including broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, mangos and papayas.

Florida grows almost year-round, up to eight months on some items. While most U.S. farms and groves (outside of apples, pumpkins, cranberries and other fall fare) begin to wind down their year, Florida begins ramping-up its fall and winter volume. The state may be growing different fruits and vegetables at different times, but it is growing.

“The mild winters make Florida an exceptional growing season for fall and winter produce,” says Maria Brous, director of media and community relations for Publix Super Markets, which operates from Lakeland, FL. “The fall and winter growing season in Florida produces many great options, including peppers, cucumbers, beans, squash, eggplant, zucchini, potatoes, just to name a few.”

The long growing season and proximity help retailers save money, says Bob Ozug, director of retail sales for C&B Farms, which grows and ships herbs, cabbage and other vegetables from Clewiston, FL.

“Especially for East Coast retailers, it’s the freshness and shelf life you save over buying from Texas and California,” he says. “That can have a huge impact on the profitability of a retail company. If you can save four days in transportation and have better shelf life, it will make a big difference on the bottom line.”

Retail’s Go-To State

Pepper SelectionRetailers depend on Florida for consistent supplies. “Florida is your go-to state when you’ve got fall and winter produce aisles to fill and customers who want domestically grown whenever possible,” says Mary Ostlund, director of marketing for Brooks Tropicals, Homestead, FL. “Florida’s harvests are usually quicker to market and fresher upon arrival, saving transportation and shrinkage costs.”

Domestically, Florida can produce 25 to 100 percent of U.S. production of certain items when they usually begin in full volume in November and harvest through May, says Dan Sleep, chief of the bureau of strategic development in FDACS’ division of marketing. During that time, Florida produces up to 100 percent of okra and tangerines, 91 percent of U.S. tomatoes, 89 percent of radishes, 70 to 100 percent of green beans, 69 percent of strawberries, 61 to 100 percent of sweet corn, 42 to 100 percent of eggplant, and 35 to 100 percent of bell peppers, according to FDACS.

Retailers can experience many benefits by sourcing Florida produce during the fall and winter, says Sleep. “It’s safe, affordable and abundant,” he explains. “It really comes down to trust and recognition. We have so many dedicated farmers ensuring our products are in good supply and ready to be sold throughout markets in America. Our farmers are mostly multi-generational and are deeply committed to the land, to quality and dedicated to supplying great products every day of the week.”

Florida’s fall production starts in central Florida in mid- to late-September, when harvesting of the state’s signature citrus crop begins. Fallglo tangerines, one of the state’s earliest citrus varieties, usually start harvesting with other varieties following until early January, when the Honey tangerine crop is scheduled to start. In early October, grapefruit and Navel oranges begin. Grapefruit usually finishes in late April and May. Mid-season oranges are harvested during the winter while the late season Valencias harvest through May.

Climate Advantages

In real estate, it’s location, location and location. For Florida produce, it’s the climate that represents one of the keys to the state’s success. The temperate winters, with generally dry weather and lots of sunshine, make for prime growing conditions.

“As the warmest state in the United States during the fall and winter months, Florida is the ideal place for growing fresh produce that time of year,” says Angela Gamiotea, marketing manager, Loxahatchee, FL-based J&J Family of Farms, which grows and ships Southern vegetables from Florida and the East Coast. “Consumers who value locally grown produce can continue to connect with farmers who share the same values and support fresh produce grown in the USA.”

That local demand helps Florida movement, says Amber Maloney, director of marketing for Wish Farms, which grows and ships strawberries, blueberries and raspberries from Plant City, FL. “From the feedback we’ve seen, consumers want local produce,” she states. “They definitely want local berries. The biggest thing we see is consumers want USA product when they can get it.”

For Jeff Williams, the Wimauma, FL-based sales manager of Nogales, AZ’s PennRose Farms, Florida’s large portfolio of products benefits retailers. “Our length of season gives buyers a large window to consolidate product,” he says. “It’s the variety of products here. You can get a lot of different products. Florida is a long state. Buyers don’t need to run all over the country to consolidate a lot of different items.”

Florida’s mild winters provide retailers the ability to plan on product for most of the time. PennRose grows and ships cabbage, as well as other vegetables. The state’s growers can supply cabbage from south, central and north Florida from early December to late May. “It’s the dependability, the reliability and the consistency,” says Williams. “You can plan on it most of the time and work with your ad items so many weeks out knowing you will have steady supplies.”

Freight Advantage for Large Catalog

Central Florida vegetables, including cucumbers and squash, start in October with bell peppers following in November. The region finishes by late December and usually overlaps with southern Florida, which generally begins in November and harvests through late spring. November brings green beans, sweet corn, lettuce and eggplant while December sees the start of cabbage and promotable volumes of strawberries. Vegetable volume returns to central Florida in mid-April. Tomatoes, Florida’s leading vegetable, usually begin harvesting in October in central Florida when growers bring grapes, cherries, Romas and mature greens to market.

Though distribution varies, in general, Florida grower-shippers truck product throughout the eastern half of the United States and Midwest, including sending heavy supplies to customers in Canada and the Caribbean.

“Florida has tremendous reach as our production ramps up in November,” says Sleep.

Southern Florida is one of two tropical sub-climates in the continental United States. Brooks Tropicals continues to open and develop markets on the West Coast. It ships Florida starfruit to all points west, including California and Texas. Because it’s sweeter than its Asian counterpart, mainstream consumers are discovering the fruit, says Brooks’ Ostlund. Such tropicals find favor among Northeastern buyers. “The Northeast continues to shine for us with special attention to retailers establishing a solid foothold with their Hispanic and Asian customers,” she says. “Tropicals’ welcome to these customers doesn’t wear thin. With the addition of Florida to the label, it’s bound to draw all to tropical flavors and aromas.”

Imported blueberries are repacked in Plant City, and are part of Wish Farms’ year-round berry program. Wish Farms can assemble mixed berry programs from Florida shipping locations, which allows buyers to receive all of their berries with one call, says Gary Wishnatzki, Wish Farms’ owner. “There is a couple of days difference in trucking times from Mexico,” he says. “Berries coming from Mexico take at least a day to get to the U.S. border. It’s probably at least two days quicker from Florida. We have a transportation advantage.”

Sourcing Florida produce supports shoppers who like to buy American, observes Publix’s Brous.

“Purchasing close to home allows the product to be shipped to our stores when it’s most fresh and peak for enjoyment by our customers,” she says. “As a southeast-based retailer, supporting the local economy and purchasing close to home is always an added benefit to our customers and operations.” Publix defines “local” as purchasing products from the chain’s operating states, which include Florida, Georgia, Alabama, South Caroline, Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia.

Fresh Advantage

Convenience to markets means fresher product, say shippers. “The biggest benefit for retailers and anyone in the industry, like foodservice operators, is we can pick product today and tomorrow it will be at a distribution center,” says Jim Monteith, sales manager for Myakka City, FL-based Utopia Packing, a division of Utopia Farms. “If it comes from Mexico, it might be a week before they get the product on their shelves. That’s the biggest advantage customers have buying and sourcing product from Florida.”

Robinson Fresh, a division of Eden Prairie, MN-based C.H. Robinson Worldwide Inc., relies heavily on Florida for fresh product. “Florida is — and will continue to be — an agricultural center for the United States, especially the eastern region,” says Doug Johnson, Robinson Fresh’s sourcing general manager of the southeast. “The expanding varieties in where things are grown in some of the microclimates and the different soil composition in Florida make it a great place for retail and foodservice entities to invest their dollars.”

While Robinson Fresh distributes to customers east of the Mississippi River, certain products, including grapefruit, are shipped throughout North America and internationally, says Johnson. Despite the citrus greening disease, the state’s citrus industry still ships heavy grapefruit volumes to wholesalers in Japan and Europe. “The transportation lane is heavily traveled,” he says. “You get a good and reliable carrier base that’s able to bring a variety of products to the market. Many products are being brought in and out.”

The long season offers profit opportunities for retailers. “The length of Florida from north to south definitely provides a unique opportunity to stay within the same state for some of the more transient items like cucumbers, peppers and blueberries — something that might move up and down the coast throughout the season,” says Johnson. “The state provides some unique climates and steadier climates to be able to grow more specific high-quality products.” The variety of climates, however, can present challenges. As one moves farther south into Florida, some areas don’t receive many cold fronts, which kill native pests, he says.

Logistical Benefits

Buyers that source from Florida, particularly those in the Northeast and Midwest, can expect to save considerably on freight costs compared to other growing regions. “Even from California, where trucks coming to the East go through the roof,” says PennRose Farms’ Williams. Florida’s freight rates are less expensive than shipping from McAllen, TX, or Nogales, AZ, which means buyers could typically save about 40 percent, he says.

A truck to the Northeast from California could cost $5,000 and $2,000 from central Florida, says Monteith. “Nogales transportation rates may be double,” he says. “Buyers may be saving freight rates coming out of McAllen, TX, but they’re still paying more than what they would pay from Florida.”

Florida serves as a launching pad for exports to Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. That makes for another logistical advantage as Florida shipments lower transportation costs and help increase product shelf lives, shippers say.

The state’s longer season and geographic advantages help keep retail shelves stocked, says J&J’s Gamiotea. “Our proximity to the markets makes it more practical to provide produce that is fresher on a more consistent basis,” she says. “Consumers nowadays are very informed about where their produce is coming from, and retailers should be able to run ads based on ‘Buy USA Produce.’ Retailers and consumers should have confidence in the consistency of product that comes from one area with this prolonged continuity of a growing cycle.”

New Crops

New crops, including peaches and sweet potatoes, have expanded acreage while growers are experimenting with other commodities not previously commercially grown in Florida, including blackberries and pomegranates. Those offerings could further expand the state’s product portfolio. Peaches, which begin production in late March, were first developed in 2007. While a U.S. Department of Agriculture acreage estimate is scheduled for February, FDACS estimates production at around 2,500 acres, higher than the estimated 1,800 acres as recently as 2015. Sweet potatoes have expanded production from $4 million in cash receipts in 2010 to $50 million today, says FDACS’ Sleep.

Because of the high cost of growing in the Sunshine State, chief executive officers of farming corporations demand growers raise more volume per acre, says Chuck Weisinger, president and chief executive of Weis-Buy Farms in Fort Myers, FL. “Growers are constantly working on volume, taste, color and flavor,” he says. “There are more hits than misses, but buyers can be assured growers are investing in new varieties.”

Florida strawberry growers are planting more acres of Florida Beauty, a new variety. The University of Florida does a good job making better-tasting varieties available to growers, says Wish Farms’ Wishnatzki.

The new items will help the state diversify into other products, says Utopia’s Monteith. “I see a little more people experimenting and putting broccoli in the ground,” he says. “Cauliflower is another item, but not too many are venturing into that.”

Proper handling is another consideration, says Weisinger. “Florida produce gives you quality,” he says. “It gives you safety because of the way we grow it, pack it and ship it. A buyer gets very little problems in terms of safety.” The contra-season production also provides advantages. “You are in a position where product is grown during the best time of the year,” he says. “Florida is growing out of season, when there’s cold weather elsewhere.”

FDACS’ longtime Fresh from Florida marketing campaign promotes the state’s produce bounty through dozens of retailers in more than 8,000 supermarkets throughout the world. The program places Florida products in weekly ad circulars. It is diversifying its promotions and improving how it targets particular areas and time periods with promotional support, explains Sleep.

“From media, social media, recipes, coupons, sampling, we are getting more of our producers to place the highly recognized Fresh from Florida logo on their products so shoppers can readily and easily choose us as they shop,” he says.

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