Growers work to better compete against rising competitor

01/08/2014 03:21:00 PM
Doug Ohlemeier

DOVER, Fla. — The Sunshine State’s strawberry industry is gearing up to battle an emerging foe.

While Florida’s grower-shippers once owned the winter market window, they’re now seeing increased competition from Mexican-grown berries.

Chris Smith (left), sales manager for Dover, Fla.-based BBI Produce Inc., and salesman James Powell, in a field of early season strawberries in early December. Smith says the berries and blooms on theDoug OhlemeierChris Smith (left), sales manager for Dover, Fla.-based BBI Produce Inc., and salesman James Powell, in a field of early season strawberries in early December. Smith says the berries and blooms on the plants look great and says he expects the season to bring large and high quality fruit. Those larger shipments of Mexican berries are affecting demand and prices, grower-shippers say.

After early December conversations with customers in Philadelphia and New York terminal markets, Steve Machell, sales manager for Gulf Coast Produce Inc., said he’d never heard of Mexican fruit arriving in those markets so early in the season.

He said the movement was an indication of what’s available from Mexico.

The region typically begins bigger shipments in mid- to late December, Machell said.

“There are some good farmers down there (in Mexico), so it’s not an issue of quality but it is a factor in the marketplace,” he said.

“There’s only so much of the pie. Whether Florida can participate, that is the question. They are 100% within our timeframe, so our growers must become dense in production quickly. They need X amount of flats in the season to get paid out.”

Mark Greeff, vice president and general manager of the Eastern region for Watsonville, Calif.-based Driscoll Strawberry Associates Inc., said the surge in Mexican product follows some perceived shortcomings on Florida’s part.

“The biggest challenge for Florida is that Mexico has generally improved its overall quality as a competitor and has become a reliable supplier,” Greeff said.

“Florida struggles with reliability. Florida will always be challenged with weather conditions, so we have to deliver on quality in a consistent basis. If Florida won’t provide a consistent and reliable product, our competitors will take us out on a consistency level.”

According to statistics from the Food and Agriculture Organization, the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Commerce, Mexican strawberry acreage has increased from an average 14,000 to 16,000 acres in 2000-10 to about 21,000 acres in 2012.

“The increased plantings are always a concern for us,” said Chris Smith, sales manager for BBI Produce Inc.

“We’re closer and have less freight, so we have to do a good job. We think if we have the quality, the buyers would rather be here too. We want to be the go-to people.”

The doubling of production has kept demand down, grower-shippers report.

“It’s certainly helped keep a lid on prices,” said Gary Wishnatzki, president and chief executive officer of Plant City-based Wish Farms. “But Florida has some advantages. Because of those advantages, our industry can exist.”

Wishnatzki points to Florida’s freight advantage to key Northeastern markets. Product can be on store shelves within two days vs. the longer transit times for berries shipped from Mexico.

The rise of social media is also helping, sources said.



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