The Pulse Of Fall Produce From Florida

Produce HarvestPhoto Courtesy of Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services

The Sunshine State fulfills a key niche as the country’s primary produce provider during the fall and winter months.

Wish Farms BlueberriesThe business climate in the U.S. has undergone a number of challenges recently that tested the fortitude of the produce industry. Florida is one of the states that benefitted from this the economical twist.

“The increased cost of production, competition from overseas and the North American Fair Trade Agreement created a situation in the produce industry where produce companies had to retrench or consolidate to stay in business,” says Chuck Weisinger, chief executive at Fort Myers, FL-based tomato supplier Weis-Buy Farms. “[Despite these challenges], Florida has not only become a hub of produce growing, but we also became a major import area where much of the overseas produce is being distributed from here.”

Weis-Buy Farms’ major market is the roughly 100 million people between Baltimore and Boston, and its tomatoes are sought out due to its high-quality and long shelf life. This is attributed to being domestically grown, as the shorter travel time helps preserve the product for a longer period. “We can deliver within the spectrum of reality on price, but on the other hand, the fact that costs have gone up drove the less efficient growers out of the produce business,” says Weisinger.

Today, to grow a net acre of tomatoes, harvest the product and pack it costs well over $11,000 an acre. “It’s not only hard to grow for that price and make a decent return, but it’s difficult to get loans from banks with today’s economic conditions,” says Weisinger. “Only the strong have survived, and the smaller growers are having a tough time.”

As the country’s fourth largest state, Florida is also seeing an increase in development, with real estate taking up land formerly designated for farming. Although some of the finest agronomists in the world call Florida home, experts say there has been a lot of flux in the state’s produce industry in recent years.

Still, this is the state to find a wide range of produce in the colder fall and winter months. “We grow out of season rather than into season like other areas,” says Weisinger. “We also develop unique fruit and vegetable varieties that can flourish in these conditions.”

Because Florida is like one big beach, much has to be put into the soil to get anything out of it. “The fact that water has become more valuable has made us some of the leaders in drip technology, even though this was invented in Israel,” says Weisinger. “The state monitors every gallon of water growers use, so we specialize in growing economically rather than in new soil, since everything relies on mulch and is drip irrigated.”

Available Commodities

What makes Florida unique is that this region grows fruits and vegetables during the fall, winter and early spring, a time period where the majority of U.S. farms are stagnated by cold weather and frost.

“We have mild winters that are ideal for growing a variety of fresh market fruits and vegetables,” says Morgan Edwards, information specialist II, Division of Marketing and Development, at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS), located in Tallahassee, FL.

Florida commodities offered during fall and winter include Eastern vegetables, such as bell peppers, cucumbers, squash, cabbage, green beans and eggplant, along with tomatoes and melons.“Florida is unique in that it allows our radishes to grow in black peat or muck in the Everglades swamp, and the state is the only domestic supplier in winter, aside from Arizona,” says Jeff Walker, sales, Napoleon, OH-based shipper TC Marketing Inc./Top Class Logistics, with radishes grown in Florida. “Radishes have become a bigger seller in the past three years as a product consumers buy on a regular basis, because it’s availability is consistent,” says Walker.

“Organics offer the same varieties, for the most part,” says Steve Oldock, owner of King Farms LLC, a Naples, FL-based broker that also partners with growers to market their product. “These products are supplied in the East, Northeast, some parts of the Midwest and Canada and cover the gaps for shortages from Mexico and the western states when there are weather or supply issues.”

Celery Fields

Florida continues to be an integral part of Duda’s national supply chain for fresh produce, including its signature celery. (Photo Courtesy of Duda Farm Fresh Foods)

Florida essentially has a seven-month growing season for vegetables, from November to June.New produce varieties are always evolving with extensive research from the University of Florida extension offices throughout the state. “The university conducts research, and for our purposes, the bulk has been on bell peppers and tomatoes,” says Oldock. “There is a lot of testing on seeds, which are first designated numbers and then given a name when the product is successful and goes to market. But research is mainly to improve current varieties.”

In terms of emerging produce, Florida peaches continue to be a new crop for the state. Additionally, many new cultivars (a plant or grouping of plants selected for desirable characteristics) for existing Florida varieties were developed through close working relationships between the University of Florida IFAS division, local farmers, various commodity associations and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

“These new cultivars ensure Florida fruits and vegetables taste great and maintain their freshness longer,” says Edwards. J & J Produce Inc., Loxahatchee, FL, is offering new proprietary varieties within the pepper category, including green, yellow and red varieties.

“These peppers have been developed to provide superior flavor profiles, upgraded nutritional values, enhanced appearance and improved post-harvest qualities including shelf life,” says Daniel Whittles, manager of business and product development. “These field-grown varieties will rival the quality of protected cultivation with the advantage of regional East Coast production and the improved economies of earth grown, open field farming.”

Through new varieties and growing practices, “Florida continues to be an integral part of our national supply chain for fresh veggies and fruit,” says Jason Bedsole, Florida sales manager for Oviedo, FL-based Duda Farm Fresh Foods. “Variety trials on all products are a continual part of our program, and we constantly look for new varieties.

Duda Farm Fresh’s fall produce includes corn, celery, radishes, leaf lettuce, Romaine, Iceberg and citrus fruits.  Being a Florida-headquartered company, the Lakeland-based Publix Super Market chain realizes it makes good business sense to support the local business economy and to buy local when possible.

For Publix, local purchasing means buying products when feasible within the six states in which the company operates, including Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee and North Carolina.     For the chain’s Florida-centric produce, it has been status quo in recent years. “We don’t have new varieties for the fall and winter months, but dragon fruit has become quite popular during this time of year,” says Maria Brous, Publix director of media and community relations. “South Florida has a lot of produce harvesting during the fall and winter months — including squash, beans, varieties of peppers, cucumbers, etc.”

Sweet Corn

Photo Courtesy of Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services

Plant City, FL-based Wish Farms grows traditional summer produce in the winter, and starts harvesting in November, which is when the early Florida strawberry crop arrives. Bare-root planting doesn’t start before December, but by using potted or plug plants, the company can start berry production much earlier for November harvesting.

“We’re growing a good amount of Sweet Sensation 127 strawberries, which is the trademark name,” says Gary Wishnatzki, Wish Farms’ president and chief executive. “The other main strawberry variety grown here is Radiance, and both types are early yielders.”

Radiance berries have numbers earlier in the season, hold the size better and sugar longer. This variety is also more consistent in flavor and shape than other strawberry varieties. Like Weis-Buy Farms, Wish Farms’ primary market area is the eastern half of U.S. and Canada. “With Mexico becoming a larger player in the winter, our distribution has shrunk a little,” says Wishnatzki. “We used to ship more berries to the West and Texas, but overall demand for fresh strawberries continues to grow, so our primary market has remained the same.”

For East Coast growers, it’s the length of the season that makes Florida a top resource for fruits and vegetables in the fall and winter months, as this state has one of the longest growing seasons. The soil also makes the state’s produce selection diverse. “What many are not aware of is the fact that there’s different soil from within 30 miles of growing areas — since around the lakes is mucky soil, and 20 to 30 miles east is sandy soil,” says Scott Seddon, brand manager/corporate chef at Pero Family Farms LLC, headquartered in Delray Beach, FL. “This difference allows us to have diverse produce offerings in a smaller geographical area than is typical for a growing region.”

Pero Family Farms handles most of the Eastern row crops, including hot and mini peppers; eggplant; squash; cucumbers; okra; and green beans. It offers both conventional and organic varieties to the Southeast, Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states. “We ship everywhere east of the Mississippi, with some commodities traveling to the Midwest,” says Seddon. “In the winter, Florida is providing the majority of the produce to three-fourths of the country.”

“The benefit of Florida produce is higher quality products, better-looking produce and a longer shelf life, since it is sourced domestically.”

— Chuck Weisinger, Weis-Buy Farms

With Florida as a major provider in the cold months, retailers and distributors can source specialty produce like tropical fruit domestically.
Florida tropicals may not be at the peak during the colder months, but they’re in good volumes throughout the fall and early winter. This includes Florida-grown starfruit, dragonfruit, red guava and avocados.

“As locally grown fruits and vegetables gradually disappear from our Northern neighbors’ produce aisles, most folks are content to extend the definition of local to include domestically-grown produce to keep the tropical fruit [in the rotation all year],” says Mary Ostlund, marketing director at Brooks Tropicals, LLC, based in Homestead, FL.

Some growers in the state also are starting to grow later varieties of green skin avocados during the colder seasons, according to Eddie Caram, general manager at New Limeco, based in Princeton FL.

Benefits of Florida Produce

There are many benefits buyers can attain by procuring Florida produce this year in terms of quality and marketing support. “The benefit of Florida produce is higher quality products, better-looking produce and a longer shelf life, since it is sourced domestically,” says Weisinger of Weis-Buy Farms. “We couldn’t compete in international markets if we didn’t provide these benefits.”

One big advantage is Florida produce is generally shipped to destination points within 24 hours. The region does have its challenges. For example, insects are an ongoing problem. And although Florida is known for its citrus, greening problems have cut yields by as much as 10 percent. “We’re still trying to make it work, not only looking at traditional crops, but experimental crops, as well,” says Weisinger. Newer industries, such as blueberries, make it easier for companies like Weis-Buy Farms to market emerging items for more selling opportunities.

“We also can consolidate a bunch of different products to send to customers instead of sending trucks all over the country to source products,” says Weisinger. “This year, we expect a healthy pepper growth as well as an increase in seedless watermelons.”

FFF works with grocery store category managers to encourage them to source their winter produce needs from Florida. The program provides incentives to place commodities on sale; assistance in sampling select commodities in stores; and works with the retailers on sponsoring coupons for select Florida fruits and vegetables.

Wish Farms is currently pitching point- of-sale display signage for inside stores that retailers can use in the peak of the produce season or throughout the Florida growing season to highlight these items.

“We’re trying to tie these promotions around recipes, so consumers can take ingredient lists with Wish Farms strawberries and other items to get a higher ring at the register,” says Amber Kosinsky, director of marketing at Wish Farms.

Profitable Promotions from State AG Groups

The Florida Department of Agriculture, the growers, and the marketing organizations — including the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, Florida Department of Citrus, Strawberry Growers Association and Florida Tomato Committee — helped increase the profile of this state’s fall and winter produce.

Although Florida produce is primarily shipped to states in the U.S., including the Midwest, Southeast and Northeast as well as eastern Canadian marketplaces, much of the promotional activity for these products takes place in the Sunshine State.

“The trend in purchasing locally certainly is most in play for the Florida market, which coincidentally is where much of our media marketing is targeted through various Fresh From Florida (FFF) marketing initiatives,” says Morgan Edwards, information specialist II, Division of Marketing and Development, at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDAC), located in Tallahassee, FL.

Fresh From Florida also works with grocery retailers throughout the U.S., Canada, Europe, Asia, Central and South America and the Caribbean to buy and promote more Florida commodities. In 2014, FFF worked with 64 retail partners representing more than 12,000 stores in 26 countries.

FFF works with grocery store category managers to encourage them to source their winter produce needs from Florida. The program provides incentives to place commodities on sale; assistance in sampling select commodities in stores; and works with the retailers on sponsoring coupons for select Florida fruits and vegetables.

Compared with The Florida Department of Agriculture, The Florida Department of Citrus, headquartered in Bartow, FL, does not have many retail promotions in place for fall, as much of its work during this season focuses on Florida grapefruit, which are in peak season beginning in December through early spring, according to Shelley Rossetter, the department’s public relations manager.

Once it is in market, the department’s efforts will include sampling, working with retailer-specific magazines, building relationships with retail-based registered dietitians and digital activations. The department also will have some promotions this winter focused on fresh Florida oranges, which are on store shelves beginning in October.

The Florida Strawberry Growers Association provides marketing materials, but growers and suppliers also offer promotional assistance. Although Florida is the largest tomato-growing state in the country, with crops starting in October and continuing until mid-June, the Florida Tomato Committee in Maitland, FL, does not have its own promotional program.

Instead, it partners with the Florida Department of Agriculture and its Fresh from Florida program to hold promotions around the Southeast. “We downsized our marketing presence to let them do what they do well,” says Reggie Brown, manager of the Florida Tomato Committee. The state is known for its round, Roma, grape and cherry tomatoes, in addition to varietal changes.