Sweet Success: Why Florida’s Strawberry Growers Have an Eye on Expansion

In the marketplace, Florida strawberries should always have large fluffy green tops and have a shine to them to ensure freshness.

Originally printed in the February 2024 issue of Produce Business.

The late and early months of each year are the time for Florida strawberries to shine in the market. The No. 1 shipper of fresh strawberries during the winter months, for the East Coast and up into Canada, Florida’s growers are looking to the months ahead with some renewed optimism after a 2022-23 season that had its challenges.

“The Florida strawberry season is about to kick off now and we’re getting the first picks of the season,” says Nick Wishnatzki, PR manager for Plant City, FL-based Wish Farms.

“We definitely had our challenges last year, but so far it’s much better — the plants look good, and the crop looks really good,” he says.

This assessment is echoed by Sue Harrell, director of marketing at the Plant City, FL-based Florida Strawberry Growers Association.

“Last season, our growers were successful with a little longer season due to the market,” she says. “During the hurricane season, we were preparing the land for this season’s crop and had very minimal damage to our area, and we kept right on schedule. Everything is lining up for a great kick-off to the new crop.”

Harrell says each new crop of bare-root plants is typically planted in October, with harvesting starting around Thanksgiving. “Volume and price determines when the season is over,” she says. “Mother Nature plays a big role in that. It is usually around Easter.”

Although sales tend to be concentrated east of the Mississippi, Harrell says the market for Florida strawberries is expanding to the Midwest, while Canada also remains important to the program.


So what is driving the appeal of Florida strawberries? Harrell believes it is a result of producing “very flavorful varieties with a strawberry aroma” that instantly attracts consumers’ attention.

“In the marketplace, our berries should always have large fluffy green tops, and the berries will have a shine to them and that’s when you know they are fresh,” she says.

The breeding program has expanded into Florida red and white varieties, Harrell adds. “The white varieties have a special niche in the marketplace, sparking an interest in foodservice and the curious foodies who like to entertain and are always looking for the unusual and tasty additions to their menu.”

Harrell says Florida can currently count on varieties that not only ship well but have a strong berry flavor, although she admits varieties have not expanded seasonally due to the state’s weather. “We have to be careful not to plant too early, as the plant will grow larger and the fruit will be harder to harvest, and it may gap in the production cycle,” adds Harrell.

According to Wish Farms’ Wishnatzki, Florida strawberries are notable for their juiciness, flavor and high sugar content. “People really like the texture of the berry, and they look forward to the full season,” he continues.

Wish Farms regularly trials new varieties through its membership in the University of Florida Strawberry Breeding Program, the premier breeding program of its kind worldwide. “We work closely with their team to identify different varieties that would work for us. We’re always looking for the next big variety that will entice consumers to continue to purchase Wish Farms,” says Wishnatzki.

One such berry is Pearl, which Wish Farms markets under the “Pink-a-boo Pineberry” name.

“Wish Farms has been the trailblazer (in the Florida breeding program) with our ‘Pink-a-boo Pineberries’ brand — it’s a great brand and resonates well with consumers. It’s a great addition to the berry patch that we have.”

Wish Farms, whose other varieties include Sweet Sensation, Medallion and Brilliance, ships its strawberries principally to East Coast locations, as well as the eastern portion of Canada. “We are competing with Mexico, and they typically go west of the Mississippi this time of year and so we’re capturing that eastern market and into Canada with Florida strawberries,” says Wishnatzki.

Although based in Irvine, CA, GEM-Pack Berries is one of the fastest-growing players in the strawberry industry. Following the 2020 addition of California’s Red Blossom Sales and Mainland Farms, Mexico, to its partnership, the company announced its merger with Well-Pict Berries — a business with substantial operations in Florida — in June 2023.

Florida strawberries are notable for their juiciness, flavor and high sugar content. And the state’s branding program has created broad recognition — and demand.

“Gem-Pack’s presence in Florida has expanded since adding Well-Pict to our portfolio,” says GEM-Pack’s vice president of marketing, Michelle Deleissegues. “Our main Florida grower, Parkesdale Farms, has also added blackberries to their offerings in recent years.”

Looking at the company’s recent track record in Florida, Kristen Hitchcock from Plant City, FL-headquartered Parkesdale Farms, says the last 12 months have been extraordinary for its Florida strawberry business. “We picked late into the season and had a very successful year,” she says.

Much of this success, Hitchcock believes, comes down to a loyal consumer base that anticipates the “incredibly sweet, aromatic and dark red” berries every season.

“The consumers love Florida strawberries because of the flavor,” she says. “They are often marketed as local or at least regionally specific and a seasonal specialty retailers and shoppers look forward to each winter. It’s a winter highlight.”

Parkesdale and GEM-Pack ship to Canada and across the U.S., covering the Midwest, Texas, Kansas, and all the way north and to the east side of the country.

At a company where strawberry acreage is increasing, Deleissegues says GEM-Pack is involved in both variety development and the imminent addition of organic berries to its mix. “Organic is a consistent factor in the strawberry market,” she says. “We currently are not offering organic out of Florida, but adding it to the program is in works.”


But while availability is strong, Wishnatzki says strawberry growers in Florida have experienced cost increases across the board, and market prices have increased as a result. “Certainly, there are cost factors and the market is adjusting to that,” he says. “We’ll see how it goes this season, but we’re hopeful that increases on the market side will cover some of the costs that we’ve incurred on the farming side. Between labor, inputs and transportation, it’s a huge expense.”

Berries drive produce sales during the winter when Florida strawberries are at their peak.

Harrell from the Florida Strawberry Growers Association agrees there are many factors impacting costs. However, she emphasizes the substantial advantages that Florida has over its competitors. “Our customers are on this coast, and we are the freshest strawberries they can get and they travel the least miles,” she says. “The other area growing strawberries in our season is Mexico and southern California, which is over 3,000 miles away. Florida is the No. 1 producer of fresh strawberries in the winter months.”


“I don’t know that retailers are putting a huge effort behind marketing Florida strawberries,” admits Wish Farms’ Wishnatzki. “Some do. But I think consumers who are familiar with the season always look forward to this time of year.”

Despite this, he says Wish Farms has point-of-sale displays ready to go for any retailers who want to push the Florida season. “We encourage retailers to show who the grower was, because there’s always a story to tell. Some will have the ‘Fresh From Florida’ display in the department, but there hasn’t been any major change,” Wishnatzki admits.

Wishnatzki says a “lot of marketing dollars” have been put behind the Fresh From Florida campaign, in particular, for targeted advertising and other initiatives.

“Fortunately, the Florida Legislature did approve continued support for the program, which is a good thing because they do some really nice marketing and there’s a good traction with their efforts,” he says. “I do think there’s a boost that happens because they help us kick off the season and any help we can get is always great.”

Pineberries, a hybrid between Japanese white strawberries and regular Florida strawberries, got their name thanks to a slight pineapple aftertaste. They are a great complement to traditional Florida strawberry varieties.

Wishnatzki says Wish Farms carries out its own targeted advertising and works closely with retail marketers to support seasonal availability.

GEM-Pack’s Deleissegues also views Fresh From Florida as a “great asset,” which consistently helps to boost sales, adding that GEM-Pack is always happy to participate.

Harrell from the Florida Strawberry Growers Association also rates Fresh From Florida as a great program that consumers now recognize as a Florida and USA brand.

“The address on the package is sometimes small and hard to see, so our organization pays for all our growers to be members and have access to the Fresh From Florida label on their packaging,” she says. “They also have marketing dollars to help promote our strawberries.”

Harrell believes retailers are also becoming increasingly creative when it comes to promoting strawberries in-store. “Retailers like large berry displays right in front to catch consumers as they enter the department, and they keep them in refrigerated cases for longer shelf life,” she says.

Berries, Harrell continues, drive produce sales during the winter when Florida strawberries are at their peak. “Red and green are perfect for the holidays,” she says. “Also, Valentine’s Day would not be the same without them on cakes and pastries in the bakery departments. They are even selling chocolate-dipped berries next to champagne and roses.”