BALM, Fla. — This year’s Florida Ag Expo focused on helping growers to expand sales through new markets.

Growers who packed the Nov. 7 conference at the University of Florida Institute of Food & Agricultural Sciences’ Gulf Coast Research and Education Center heard a retailer and grower-shippers discuss ways they could develop new markets and how to differentiate their products from their competition.

Florida Ag Expo focuses on retail trendsFormer retailer Anthony Barbieri, vice president of business development for the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., discussed how grower-shippers can benefit from retail trends.

“Fresh produce sales at retail are growing,” he said. “They’re growing for a couple of reasons because the dollar amounts are gained. The tonnage may not be as proportionate as the dollars, however. There are certain categories that are performing better than others. These are driven by consumers who are voting with their dollars.”

Barbieri, former director of produce sales for Acme Markets Inc., Malvern, Pa., said taste and consistency can’t be overemphasized and said new varieties being developed at the research center should help attract repeat shopper purchases.

He cited increasing shelf space for winter strawberries.

In another panel discussion, Gary Wishnatzki, president and chief executive officer of Plant City-based Wish Farms, talked about his company’s success using social media to promote its berries.

“It’s important to have consumers connected to our growers,” Wishnatzki said. “What’s a Facebook fan worth? It’s hard to quantify. For us, it’s about building our brand.

“We have 8,000 Facebook fans who follow our strawberries through the season,” he said. “It builds awareness and creates a little pull from the retailers.”

The conference also covered local produce and sessions addressed new University of Florida-bred tomato, berry, citrus and potato varieties.

The event, sponsored by the Maitland-based Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association and the Florida Tomato Committee, the Dover-based Florida Strawberry Growers Association and the Gainesville-based University of Florida, attracted 700 participants, up from nearly 600 last year, organizers said.