Florida grower starts California strawberry deal

03/24/2011 05:29:26 PM
Mike Hornick

California companies are known for striking deals to grow produce in Florida during their crops’ off-seasons, but the traffic can go both ways.

An example is Plant City, Fla.-based Wishnatzki Farms. The grower-shipper will have a California strawberry deal this spring for the first time in more than 10 years, said Gary Wishnatzki, chief executive officer.

Wishnatzki Farms, which has marketed under the Wish Farms label since the start of 2010, has begun a 120-acre joint venture with Salinas, Calif.-based Berry Valley.

“We’ve been the largest strawberry shipper in Florida for over 50 years,” Wishnatzki said. “We’ll be a small piece of California production going in but we’d like to increase 50% a year for the next few years.”

Wish Farms will market strawberries grown by Berry Valley, but the growth plan could involve own-grown strawberries as well as joint ventures, Wishnatzki said. “We’re looking at all avenues to increase our production (in California),” he said.

“You see more California guys looking to go to Florida,” said Darwin Reich, who will direct Salinas Valley operations for Wishnatzki Farms. “This is the opposite, but it doesn’t surprise me. There’s so much emphasis from buying departments on having a year-round source. By adding California, they can provide that.”

“We just see the handwriting on the wall if competition is year-round,” Wishnatzki said. “Just about every major California shipper has found deals in Florida. We could be losing status with some of our customers if we were not providing that same option.”

The Berry Valley venture is one result of a strategic initiative begun a year ago. “We wanted to become year-round marketers on all the major crops,” he said.

In Florida, Wishnatzki Farms grows about half of its strawberry volume and markets the other half through partnerships. It’s their biggest commodity. They don’t grow blueberries, but market them for about 75 growers in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Michigan and Chile. Other commodities include bell peppers, grape tomatoes, squash and eggplant.

Reich was previously an operations manager in Salinas for NorCal Harvesting.

Wish Farms plans to use the Fresh QC traceability technology from Virtual One in California. The grower-shipper has already used it for two seasons in Florida.

“It can be used in California,” Wishnatzki said. “There have been questions about how labor would accept putting a sticker on a clamshell. In Florida the crews had no issues, and there was no effect on productivity.”

“The value pays for the traceability,” he said. “It’s increased our consumer feedback, and from that we are rewarding pickers for doing a good job, and learning where problems come from. The traceability back to the picker is the unique thing about Fresh QC. We know when a lot was picked and who picked it. That’s invaluable. Our outside growers are using it as well.”



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