Florida’s Bountiful Fall and Winter Produce Offerings

Organics Are a Rising Category in the Sunshine State

In the past, organic production in Florida was low. However, more grower-shippers are branching out.

“Organic production is definitely on the rise in Florida,” says Chris Denmark, development representative supervisor for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ division of marketing, Tallahassee, FL. “The desire to meet increased demand for organic category produce and the ever-increasing organic product lines in mainstream retail outlets is evidence of overall increased organic production.”

As organic produce has expanded to become more mainstream with consumers, it has become more attractive to growers as well, says Denmark. “While it continues to be a relatively new category in many East Coast retailers, many conventional growers are considering transitioning a portion of their farm to supply the growing demand,” he says.

In many instances, organic production handled on smaller farms in partnership with larger growers and packers helps the smaller organic farms that individually may not be able to supply large retailers. The relationships lets larger packers fill organic category orders, which in turn allows consistent retail supplies. “There is growth potential at all levels in this model,’ says Denmark.

C&B Farms, which is headquartered in Clewiston, FL, is selling more organic herbs, cabbage, green beans, kale, collards and other vegetables to retailers including Wal-Mart and Publix Super Markets. “We have definitely seen an increase in sales over the past two years,” says Bob Ozug, director of retail sales. “Retailers are expanding their selections. We have probably doubled the number of organic items we have sold them.”

Because of prolonged pest pressure from insects, weeds and diseases, the ability of growers to adapt and create new strategies is constantly changing and beginning to cross over into conventional growing practices, says Denmark. The organic muck soils of the Everglades Agricultural Area, for example, in the southern part of the state, are well suited for production of organic crops, he says. Growers there are increasing organic acreage in several commodities.

Ozug says growing organics in Florida can be challenging, particularly in an environment that’s widely known for being hostile to growing plants without crop protectants to battle the region’s many diseases and pests. “It’s definitely a learning curve, but we have fine-tuned the items we grow,” he says. “As much as retailers want organics, they are not always willing to pay the price that comes with it. They still want them to be as beautiful as every other crop. When you can’t use the herbicides and pesticides you use to protect your conventional crops, your costs go higher.”

Organics represent 25 percent of C&B’s sales. Between its farming operations in south Florida and Cape Charles, VA, and grower partnerships in Georgia and Michigan, C&B supplies herbs and vegetables to retail customers throughout the year, and it is receiving more requests for organic vegetables. Ozug says other growers tell him they’re experimenting with the segment. “It’s expanding in Florida, but it’s seems like it’s growing in other places as well,” he says.

Wish Farms, a berry grower-shipper based in Plant City, FL, is increasing production of organic strawberries and blueberries. It is one of the state’s largest organic berry growers. This year, Wish Farms plans to grow about 300 acres of organic strawberries out of the 1,800 acres it grows for all strawberries. “Demand for organics is increasing,” says Gary Wishnatzki, owner. “The customer base seems to be expanding. Demand is going well.”

Wishnatzki sees sales increases when stores merchandise organic product next to conventional berries. Since retailers began merchandising organic alongside conventional fruit, demand has soared on the organic, he says.

Millennials are leading the charge in organic purchases. However, sales growth isn’t limited to that buying segment. “While Millennials are the ones really demanding it, the whole segment is growing,” says Wishnatzki. “We are seeing increasing demand across all age groups who are consuming more organics.”

Robinson Fresh, a division of Eden Prairie, MN-based C.H. Robinson Worldwide Inc., is exploring organics further in Florida. It has been testing and commercially producing organics, including organic and conventional broccoli and kale, from Florida for four years. This season, Robinson Fresh plans to offer a strong array of dry vegetables, including cucumbers, bell peppers, and soft and hard squashes. It grows the Orangetti variety of squash, which possesses a hard orange shell.

“Pests and a small amount of rain can affect organic crops in a big way,” says Doug Johnson, Robinson Fresh’s sourcing general manager of the Southeast. “Retailers are dependent on having a consistent supply of an item, and weather and pests can affect supply and demand for the product,” he says. “It’s becoming more difficult these days to piece together those inconsistencies from one supplier to another. As we learn to become more consistent in organic supply, we will continue to have more success out of Florida.”

Organic production still appears small in Florida, says Jim Monteith, sales manager for Myakka City, FL-based Utopia Packing, a division of Utopia Farms. However, he says he sees more organic product in stores. “Looking at supermarkets, when I do my store travels, I see more organic offerings in the supermarkets than I have seen in the past,” says Monteith. “It seems like there’s a little more movement.”