‘Produce Powerhouse’ helps keep u.s. retailers competitive during fall, winter.
Originally printed in the October 2021 issue of Produce Business.
Offering a large product catalog, Florida is one of the primary sources of fresh fruits and vegetables in the fall and winter. The Sunshine State is a high-volume supplier of fresh commodities and ships to markets all over the world.
Florida’s fall and winter harvest season fills a gap in domestic production. Several of the state’s commodities are the first domestic crops in season and offer a local, fresher alternative to imported crops. Florida meets consumers’ demand for a diverse selection of fruit and vegetables year-round without compromising their desire to buy local.
“[Florida produce] is extremely important, considering that outside of Mexico, Florida is the primary location for crops during this time of year,” says Maria Brous, director of media and community relations for Publix Super Markets Inc., based in Lakeland, FL. “Since most of our stores are located in Florida, having this locally grown produce available to our customers is our primary focus. The Florida crop is vital to maintaining a full and healthy supply chain across most of the United States.”
The wealth of Florida product is impressive. “Florida produces enough produce during a large part of the year, becoming self-sufficient during large timeframes with a large diversity in items,” observes Nichole Towell, senior director of marketing for Duda Farm Fresh Foods Inc., headquartered in Oviedo, FL. “We are strategically located to feed the Midwest, Eastern Seaboard and eastern Canada. Retailers continue to see growth in Florida vegetables as more high-quality commodities come into the marketplace from the region. Having different soil types and warmer weather during the winter months lends a hand to growing excellent produce in Florida.”
During the fall and winter, the Sunshine State is a star supplier. “Florida is a produce powerhouse and is often referred to as the ‘winter breadbasket’ for the U.S.,” says Christina Morton, director of communications for the Maitland, FL-based Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association (FFVA). “While much of the country is covered in snow during winter months, Florida enjoys the sunshine and warmer temperatures needed to produce a bounty of crops. For consumers looking to buy domestic produce during the fall and winter, they should be looking and asking for Florida produce.”
Florida’s winter product availability is especially important to retail sales, says Thomas Perny, supervisor of trade development for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ (FDACS) division of marketing and development, Tallahassee, FL. “Retailers around the world depend on Florida’s farmers to supply high-quality fruit and vegetables,” he says. “The variety, quality, and dependability of Florida’s commodities and supply chain are important to retail sales.”
Stores rely on Florida produce to build the bottom line. “Florida produce is a huge impact on a retail company’s profitability,” observes Mark Cote, regional produce merchandiser for Redner’s Warehouse Markets Inc., a Reading, PA-based chain of stores in Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland. “It makes a big difference for the bottom line when it’s from Florida. Florida provides a lot of product for us on the East Coast. When everything else is finishing up, Florida is the biggest domestic grower for the whole East Coast. They’re definitely a lifesaver. And I don’t mean the candy, either.”
Florida offers buyers logistics advantages, too. “Freight savings and freshness continue to be a priority to customers,” says Towell. “Having smaller quantities going into major markets results in quicker delivery times, which ultimately distributes the freshest available product at a lower price for customers. Retail continues to see huge freight saving and a freshness advantage with items that are Florida grown, especially in our leaf/lettuces and celery.”
The state offers a large, diverse product catalog, shipping more than 300 different commodities such as bell peppers, cucumbers, green beans, squash, sweet corn, potatoes and tomatoes, cabbage, celery, eggplant, lettuce and radishes, as well as fruit such as strawberries, blueberries, peaches, watermelon and citrus.
“Florida is proud to produce a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables during the fall and winter months for American consumers,” says Morton. “In fact, Florida leads the nation in the production value of many of those crops.”
“If there was a silver lining to the pandemic, it was that it placed a spotlight on the importance of American farmers, who are on the front lines putting food on consumers’ tables,” she adds. “With that brings a renewed appreciation for Florida farmers and the importance of fresh produce in daily diets.”
FDACS’ “Fresh From Florida” retail incentive program markets Florida produce from November to May, during the height of Florida’s production. Over the past 15 years, the “Fresh From Florida” program has expanded to include international retailers and distributors. “Fresh From Florida” maintains retailer relationships in 25 countries with 103 retail partners that operate more than 12,000 stores. The program’s goal is to create effective programs which not only result in increased sales on the grocery floor, but also drive sales for Florida growers.
Point-of-purchase materials are available for retailers’ use throughout the year. Store produce managers can erect “Fresh From Florida” signage, including posters, shelf talkers, produce bins and in-store displays to promote in-season Florida products. Retailers feature the “Fresh From Florida” logo alongside Florida-sourced produce in their weekly circular advertisements. “Weekly circulars are the bulk of our promotions because they have historically proven to result in more sales,” says Perny.
Keeping it Local
Florida’s diverse product offering is important for retailers. “Our customers are very keen on having Florida-grown produce available when in season,” says Publix’s Brous. “Florida produce, such as berries, citrus, and the many row crops, are all perceived as a must-have by our customers. They can shop with confidence that the product on the shelf is some of the freshest, most flavorful of the year. That’s why supporting our Florida growers during this time is our priority.”
The pandemic has accelerated interest in local produce, something Florida growers easily provide. “Since COVID, we have seen an increase in interest buying Florida grown,” says Sue Harrell, director of marketing for the Florida Strawberry Growers Association, based in Dover, FL. “The ‘Fresh From Florida’ logo is so important on the packaging — it takes the guesswork out of finding out where the product is grown.”
“Supporting the local industries has been on the rise,” she adds. “We want the story of Florida agriculture shared. The state is not just a vacation destination, it is very important in production of food for our country in the winter months.”
“Fresh From Florida” helps shoppers identify where their produce originates. “It’s no surprise that now more than ever, consumers are very interested in where their food comes from, and they want to buy fresh produce grown here in the United States,” says FFVA’s Morton. “Florida’s specialty crop growers consider ‘Fresh From Florida’ an invaluable partner, providing Florida farmers with resources to market their products to a national and global audience. In fact, our grower members would not be able to establish the level of engagement needed with national retail buyers or consumers outside of Florida without the program.”
Grower-shippers welcome the marketing support. “Any program that helps elevate Florida produce is always welcomed by the agriculture industry in our state,” says Nick Wishnatzki, public relations manager of Wish Farms, Plant City, FL. “We are very fortunate that FDACS has a great team supporting the industry. ‘Fresh From Florida’ is a known and trusted brand and the program represents growers, large and small.”
Most importantly, Wishnatzki says, the program brings consumer awareness of produce that is in-season and local to Florida. “Domestic growers need the marketing support more than ever to identify their products so that consumers can make an educated decision on what to buy.”
Retailers promote “Fresh From Florida” on their social media platforms to encourage shoppers to load Florida produce into their shopping carts. Posts may feature images of weekly circular ads, Florida produce currently in season, “Fresh From Florida” recipes as well as in-store produce displays.
Retailers benefit from the campaign. “We continue to grow as a result of working with the ‘Fresh From Florida’ campaign,” says Louis Scagnelli, director of produce and floral operations at White Plains, NY-based Alpha 1 Marketing, which services CTown, Bravo, Aim and Market Fresh stores.
“Our Florida tomato and vegetable program is stronger than ever. Each year we are consistently increasing our volume, and this year was no different. [‘Fresh from Florida’] has been one of our absolute best partners.”
As consumer demand and preferences evolve, so, too, does the Florida specialty crop grower, says Morton, “innovating to move product quickly from field to consumers’ tables and bringing to market new varieties.”
Tomatoes are a big Florida item. “Between November and May, Florida is the only U.S. source of field-grown tomatoes,” notes Michael Schadler, executive vice president of the Maitland-based Florida Tomato Committee and senior vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange and the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange. “Retailers can use this to their advantage to offer customers a mix of field-grown and greenhouse options. Highlighting American-grown or Florida-grown can also help diversify the category mix, given the abundant Mexican supplies during these months.”
New produce products are also being tested and released. Artichokes is one new item. “The globe artichoke is an emerging winter crop for Florida agriculture,” says Donna Watson, FDACS’ industry communications manager. The University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences has conducted research and on-farm trials in the greater Tampa Bay area and in north Florida, and found the Green Queen variety to produce the greatest yield, superior taste, aesthetics and texture, she says. Depending on planting location, the harvesting season for the Florida artichoke is mid-February through May.
“Around 99% of domestic artichokes are currently produced in California,” says Watson. “If trials prove successful, this high-value crop could offer an appealing opportunity to Florida farmers and retailers alike.”
Old staples, such as Florida field-grown tomatoes, can also find expanded use. “Known for their firmness and lack of watery gel content, Florida’s round or Roma tomatoes are the perfect slicers and dicers for restaurants and other foodservice operators,” says Schadler. “This utilization efficiency will make Quality Control teams happy while providing cost savings on the tomato category spend. Greenhouse-grown tomatoes tend to leave a watery mess and Mexican vine-ripes tend to be too soft. Savvy operators know that Florida tomatoes are the best option for their foodservice needs.”
The “Fresh From Florida” logo enjoys an 85% consumer awareness, and nine out of 10 consumers in surveys state they would be more likely to buy a product that was labeled “Fresh From Florida.” And 83% say they would be willing to pay more for “Fresh From Florida,” an all-time survey high.
With consumers putting an increased value on local produce, “retailers that actively promote local Florida farmers are more likely to resonate with consumers and retain their loyalty,” says FDACS’ Perny.
Fresh From Florida Helps Power Retail Sales
Florida produce keeps retailers’ shelves stocked during the fall and winter and helps supermarkets remain competitive. Retail produce executives say they find high value from “Fresh From Florida” produce.
“Florida vegetables are prime up here,” says Mark Cote, regional produce merchandiser for Redner’s Warehouse Markets Inc., in Reading, PA. “It’s the freshness, the freshness, the freshness. Florida is one of the few domestic states producing on the East Coast in the winter. We depend on the climate to not only help the retailers, but for the growers, where it all starts. Florida vegetables are really a winner for us. We really look forward to that Florida crop, no matter what it is.”
Florida produce quality remains high, and “the reputation Florida produce has with our customers has grown stronger over the years,” says Maria Brous, director of media and community relations for Lakeland, FL-based Publix Super Markets Inc. “Our customers’ awareness of and demand for ‘locally grown’ has increased exponentially. We continue to challenge ourselves to better communicate our Florida local program to our customers.”
Publix maintains high sourcing standards, and vigorously communicates high expectations with its suppliers, says Brous. “We seek only the best-in-class growers who have a long history and reputation for food safety and high-quality produce. We feel this combination provides our customers the very best value.”
“Fresh From Florida” point-of-sale material helps Redner’s increase sales of Florida produce. “Just that point-of-sale on the box brings shoppers in,” says Cote. “Very few put produce items on their shopping lists. They (shoppers) may not want to buy that particular item, but when they come to the display, an attractive display, before you know it, they’re picking it up. Shoppers buy what they see. When you have that good quality, everyone wants to try something that looks really spectacular.”
One item Redner’s is seeing more success with is dragon fruit, a Florida tropical item. “Everyone is going ape over dragon fruit,” says Cote. “It’s a big thing now.” Cote says he originally wasn’t sure dragon fruit would take off , but today, he sells two to three cases of the tropical a week.
“The ‘Florida grown’ message has become the calling card for many of our customers, understanding this time of year they can enjoy some of the best quality, locally grown,” says Brous. “This strong reputation with our customers motivates us to build and maintain strong grower relationships throughout Florida, ensuring they continue to grow and expand to meet the demands of a growing population.”