SUNSHINE STATE’S SPRING PRODUCE SHINES

Originally printed in the February 2019 issue of Produce Business.

Buyers benefit from Florida’s large product variety, lower logistics costs.

Florida offers a variety of produce that can fill a retailer’s shopping order. As the Sunshine State grows a variety of produce, retail and wholesale buyers can find almost every produce item they need during Florida’s spring season.

“For many vegetables, Florida is the only producer during much of the spring; it’s an important domestic source during this window,” says Jason Wyatt, director of sales and business development for Nogales, AZ’s PennRose Farms, LLC, which grows and ships from Wimauma, FL. “Our season allows for consistency of supply and quality. Customers can rely on loading in one general area of production for most of the year. It also allows for us to manage through weather events that happen during the course of the season.”

Although Florida’s seasonal production begins in the fall, the biggest volumes of many commodities, including sweet corn, green beans and tomatoes, typically commence in April.

FAVORABLE GROWING DISPOSITION

“Florida’s sunny, warm days and cool evenings, soil, water and abundance of acres available for agriculture make it an ideal location for produce production during the winter and spring,” says Veronique Sallin, vice president of IMG Citrus, Inc., which grows and ships citrus from Vero Beach, FL.

“Retailers give priority to local or U.S.-grown produce over imported. Florida citrus, in particular, plays a crucial role with a bounty of in-season grapefruit, tangerines and oranges ready for garnishing produce aisles with color, fragrance and freshness.”

Florida provides a higher-volume role in supplying produce. “Sourcing from Florida is not like sourcing from a local, or even a regional, program that creates inefficiencies due to their size,” says Jeffrey Goodale, director of domestic sales for Duda Farm Fresh Foods, Inc., headquartered in Oviedo, FL. “Florida farmers have developed farming practices that allow us to provide fruits and vegetables that consistently have quality, volume and competitive pricing. Florida producers provide such a large variety of products, with great quality and in such high volume, that being the primary or sole supply for customer warehouses is standard procedure.”

Retailers value Florida’s position. “Florida produce is very important in our stores,” says Tommy Melton, produce supervisor for Elrod’s Cost Plus Supermarket in Dallas, TX. Elrod’s is a part of the Carrollton, TX-based GE Foodland, which operates four Foodland Markets and five Elrod’s in the Texas Metroplex. Elrod’s sells many Florida oranges, strawberries and sweet corn. “Florida produce is very good,” he says. “It affects us when they have weather issues; when freezes hit, it affects us badly. We look forward to Florida produce coming in. It’s a critical part of our merchandising.”

Though Florida grows and ships some type of fresh citrus from September through June, it’s toward the latter part of the season when flavors really shine for Valencia oranges, which are popular for fresh juicing, says Russell Kiger, sales manager of DLF International, Inc., which ships from Fort Pierce, FL, in the Indian River growing region. “We have the highest quality of orange juice in the world as we get into our later varieties,” he says. Additionally, by the time buyers switch to West Coast fruit, freight rates have usually escalated, says Kiger.

Because of the taste and quality, buyers prefer to continue sourcing oranges and grapefruit from Florida for the entire season, explains Kiger. “The flavor and juice content are big parts of it,” he says. “There’s a world of difference in aroma and flavor of Florida fruit. These buyers will stay in Florida as long as possible before throwing in the towel and switching to California Valencias. They prefer to stay in Florida as long as the fruit holds up.”

DREAMS OF THE TROPICS

Florida produce also helps shoppers who often experience bone-chilling temperatures during the desolate winter months. “Florida can bring a wide variety of fresh produce during the cold months up North,” says Mary Ostlund, director of marketing for Brooks Tropicals LLC, Homestead, FL. “That domestic point-of-sale material is noticed. Add the vivid colors, shapes and tastes of Florida tropicals and you’ve tempted point-of-purchase sales.”

The quality of Florida produce has helped it become a critical part of the 87 Harps Food Stores in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri, says Mike Roberts, director of produce operations for the Springdale, AR-based chain. “Florida’s quality seems to get better every year,” he says. “Ten to 15 years ago, we didn’t source any Florida berries. Now we’re doing Florida berries and peaches. It’s getting better and better out of that part of the country for us.”

In strawberries, Florida’s window begins in November as California production winds down and before California’s seasonal start in early April. Florida’s competition is California and Mexico, says Sue Harrell, director of marketing for the Florida Strawberry Growers Association (FSGA), which is headquartered in Dover, FL. “We can supply the East Coast and Canadian markets with the freshest product possible because of fewer miles traveled,” she says.

Florida maintains many logistics and distribution advantages. Such distribution and logistics advantages are crucial for more perishable produce. The more than 100 million people between Baltimore and Boston alone is a valid reason for sourcing Florida’s fresh tomatoes, says Chuck Weisinger, president and chief executive officer of Fort Myers, FL-based Weis-Buy Farms, Inc. “Marketing is very important, and price is important,” he says. “We (Florida) can deliver to those Eastern markets for a lot less than other countries or places can. Buyers can receive faster arrivals. The guarantees are even more. That’s what Florida can give to the world and to the Northeast, Southeast and Midwestern parts of the U.S.”

PROXIMITY KEEPS COSTS CHECKED

That proximity helps ensure freshness and quality, says Brian Arrigo, president of Southern Corporate Packers, Inc., which is based in Immokalee, FL. “Customers can place an order, and it can be to them within one to three days,” he says. “That can help keep them tight on their inventories, and it’s a fresher product they can order. Overall, because of the shorter freight times, the product will be fresher and will have longer shelf life. It’s a big benefit.”

Prices are lower for East Coast retailers sourcing from Florida, notes DLF’s Kiger, who says one of his largest juice orange customers last year paid delivered costs of $23 from Florida and $30 from California, because of trucking. “Logistically, and even during the structure when we have at the most expensive time during the spring, we still have a competitive edge,” he says. “That allows buyers a little more time to decide what they want when looking at two- to three-day transits.”

In addition to product spending less time on the truck, Florida shippers can react quickly to changes in store sales, says PennRose’s Wyatt. “The clear advantage for retailers East of the Mississippi River is having fresher product compared to imported or Western production,” he says. “Shorter transit times and lower transportation costs are key. The ability to react quicker to changes in sales is also a key advantage.”

To avoid being out of stock, retailers traditionally have been required to carry high amounts of inventory, a strategy that results in more costs, observes Duda’s Goodale. “As a result, we have seen more and more customers look for ways to tighten the days between when they generate purchase orders to when they get the final sale so they can narrow in on their forecasts,” he says. “For anyone located in the eastern half of the U.S. or Canada, sourcing from Florida provides a way to overcome this challenge because it takes multiple days out of the supply chain while maintaining quality.”

LOCAL ADVANTAGE

The local angle helps tell shoppers farmers’ stories, says Harrell. Florida has been growing strawberries in the winter months for more than 100 years, and its growers can supply the North and Southeast markets with fresh strawberries from Thanksgiving through Easter. “Consumers want to know the story behind the product,” she says. “Being transparent is the key. Consumers love the connection of farm to fork. Farmers are real people, not corporations. We love to tell our story.” The FSGA offers in-store sampling and grower visits.

Compared to California and Texas, Florida is considered “local” on the East Coast, observes IMG’s Sallin.

“With the cost of trucking on the rise and lack of drivers, the proximity of Florida to East Coast retailers provides a substantial cost savings for them, while capitalizing on local sourcing trends and having a smaller carbon footprint,” she says.

Because of grower agronomic investments, Florida’s tomatoes taste better than they did in the 1970s, says Weisinger. “Because Florida is a giant sand beach, we have to put all the good stuff into the product to give it flavor,” he says. The late 2018 Romaine lettuce scare should remind buyers and shoppers of the importance of food safety and the many investments Florida growers make into safe handling practices, notes Weisinger.

State and private breeding operations, including those by several large tomato grower-shippers, maintains high flavor. “A lot of our varieties are used all over the world,” says Weisinger. “Florida ensures the quality and efficacy of your produce. Florida packing operations are some of the most modern and up-to-date in the world.”

New mandarin varieties, including Tango, Orri and Bingo, are being introduced to supplement Florida’s traditional Sunburst and Honey tangerines, meeting consumer demand for seedless, easy-peel mandarins and competing with California mandarins. New early varieties of Valencia juicing oranges are also being planted to extend the season and meet growing demand for in-store and at-home freshly squeezed orange juice, says Sallin.

QUALITY REPUTATION

“Florida’s climate and unique soil produces citrus that is difficult to replicate in other parts of the country,” says Sallin. “This unique combination creates a sweeter, juicier product.” Florida and California are the top U.S. fresh produce suppliers. “They offer volumes and longer availability that allow retailers to have promotable products and to liven up their shelves,” she says.

Florida’s quality reputation is well-known, says PennRose’s Wyatt. “For generations, Florida has been recognized as a top producer of quality fresh fruits and vegetables throughout the U.S.,” he says. “We have ideal growing conditions and diverse production areas from North Florida all the way to Homestead. With warm days and cool nights, we can grow great quality produce.” The Florida Department of Agriculture and the industry promote Fresh from Florida well, says Wyatt. “Our produce is comparable in quality and value to other imported options,” he says.

The appeal of buying American is also strong, says Southern Corporate Packers’ Arrigo. “By loading from Florida, you’re buying U.S. product,” he says. “You understand everything U.S. growers have to go through, including food safety rules and regulations and labor. Buyers are supporting U.S. farmers and domestic product.”

Retailers should promote Florida’s produce, says Brooks’ Ostlund. “Enjoying local produce is so popular that folks in the winter and early spring will be more than willing to expand their definition of ‘local’ to enjoy the exotic and nutritional tropical fruits harvested in Florida,” she says. “Say it loud and proud: domestic fruit. During late winter and early spring, there’s not many who can claim it. Florida does, and tropicals just nail home another reason to buy Florida. Tropicals aren’t your run-of-the-mill fruit. Why eat “same-old” when the tropicals deliver a much more exciting and exotic taste?”

Variety is the slice of life, particularly for Florida grower-shippers. “Florida farmers are continually working to improve the number of items we can provide to our customers,” says Duda’s Goodale. He cites Duda’s work on providing Florida Romaine hearts that consistently possess the quality expected by today’s consumer. “It was a lot of work with poor results in the early years, but for the past few years, the quality has rivaled or even surpassed the quality supplied from the West,” he says.

SUNSHINE STATE PROMOTIONS

Last year, 84 retail partnerships involving more than 11,000 stores with FDACS’ Fresh from Florida program resulted in the promotion of 43 commodities in 26 states, says Mindy Lee, Fresh from Florida bureau chief and media and communications and media manager for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS), based in Tallahassee, FL. Florida produce is marketed in a variety of ways, including displays highlighting Fresh from Florida fruit and vegetables, sampling events, point-of-purchase signage, ad-circulars, social media, grocery cart signage, special events and direct mail.

Consumer demand for brand name produce is increasing, says Lee. In a 2017 survey of primary grocery shoppers, 75 percent stated they were aware of the Fresh from Florida brand, up 85 percent since 2013 with 86 percent of those saying they are more likely to buy Fresh from Florida-labeled products than identical products without that label. Of those, 77 percent say they are willing to pay more for it, says Lee.

Retailers can be assured of strong marketing support from Florida shippers who participate in the Fresh from Florida program. “They provide top-level marketing support to retailers of all sizes,” says Goodale. “We have provided support on items through all types of media, including TV ads in a retailer’s focus area. All our sleeved and bagged products grown in Florida include the Fresh from Florida logo. Retailers can order point-of-sale display materials directly from the Fresh from Florida program.”

Because Florida’s market share has shrunk during the past decade, the state’s growers want to hold onto what they have and increase their sales, says Weisinger. “When buyers want long-term pricing so they can run ads and draw customers into the stores and restaurants, they can come to Florida growers and make the kinds of deals that are farm-to-table deals,” he says. “They can guarantee the quality of the product all the way to your table and price in many cases. Even though we operate in a supply-and-demand situation, the Florida grower generally has changed with the times and has made it user-friendly for the customer base.”


AVAILABILITY ABOUNDS

“Florida’s year-round growing season makes it easy for consumers to find an abundant selection of fresh healthy Florida produce and vegetables,” says Mindy Lee, Fresh from Florida bureau chief and media and communications and media manager for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS), based in Tallahassee, FL. “During late fall through spring, Florida is a primary supplier of fresh grown vegetables and fruits. Produce grown during this period is as ‘local’ as they can supply to their customers.”

From one end of the state to another, Florida growers supply North America and international destinations produce. In the southern half of the state — in the Everglades region and above — vegetables including bell peppers, cucumbers, squash and eggplant as well as tomatoes and tropicals are grown. In the northern part of the state — in the Palatka, FL, region — potatoes and cabbage are grown.

In between the top and bottom — in the center of the state near the I-4 corridor — strawberries, blueberries, watermelon, citrus and vegetables are produced in large numbers. The Indian River region on the East Coast grows volumes of grapefruit and oranges.

A big advantage is Florida growers’ capacity to supply product as long as 10 months. “Florida’s season ensures retail markets will always have fresh and local produce to offer their consumers,” says FDACS’ Lee. “Florida produces the bulk of U.S. fresh commodities from November to early June, while most other U.S. states are dormant.”


ORGANICS BECOME FACTOR IN FLORIDA PRODUCTION

Florida growers have been stepping up their organic production to meet growing demand.

“Overall, Florida’s organic production has definitely been on a steady increase over the past 10 years,” says Mindy Lee, Fresh from Florida bureau chief and media and communications and media manager for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, based in Tallahassee, FL, who cites U.S. Department of Agriculture data. “However, organics still make up only a tiny portion of total produce shipments, about 0.6 percent in 2018,” she says.

It’s estimated that organics account for 8 percent to 12 percent of the state’s total strawberry production, says Craig Casca, executive officer and director of sales for Red Blossom, based in Los Olivos, CA.

This season, Red Blossom increased its acreage to 50 acres, up from 10 acres last year. Casca characterizes organic demand as high and says the category is becoming a bigger factor. He says growers are increasing production. “Looking ahead, there is good demand and room for more growth,” he says. “We see more growth and more demand as customers look for healthier options in their diets.”

Wish Farms, based in Plant City, FL, was the first to commercially grow organic strawberries in Florida. The grower-shipper represents 50 percent to 60 percent of the state’s organic strawberry market, says Nick Wishnatzki, marketing projects manager.

“We have definitely seen an increase in organic acreage and production,” he says. “Most larger conventional growers in Florida have added an organic piece.”

Wishnatzki characterizes the state of Florida’s organic strawberry market as “very strong” and says the outlook also looks well. Overall, during the past few years, growers have increased supplies, which has kept up with demand. Availability has helped make retail prices more affordable to more consumers, which has led to retailers being more apt to go on ad, he explains.

“Organic is a big factor,” says Wishnatzki. “One thing we have seen is an increase in size of our organic berries. This is due to a good varietal mix and improved growing practices. We are one of the few, if only, organic producers that grows the Sweet Sensation [variety]. With this increase in size, we have been able to pack larger sizes.”

Duda Farm Fresh Foods, Inc., Oviedo, FL, grows organics, including organic celery. “Organics are another example of Florida’s innovation with several trials beginning to come to the point of retail-ready,” observes Jeffrey Goodale, director of domestic sales. “Duda’s trials over the last few seasons on a number of items have been very promising.”

Astin Strawberry Exchange LLC, based in Plant City, has doubled its acreage since last year. The grower-shipper grows 200 acres of organic strawberries compared with 1,300 acres conventional, says Shawn Pollard, salesman. “You can see the trends,” he says. “Organics is a staple in Millennials’ diets. There’s continual incremental growth in organics. They’re willing to pay and seem like they really demand that organically grown berry.”

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