Miles Dietz, farm manager for West Coast Produce, checks out the spring crop. ( Photo courtesy West Coast Produce )

The Florida spring produce season will get underway in time, thanks to a largely uninterrupted spate of favorable growing conditions, suppliers say.

“The crops are good, and we’ve got good weather for the crops we’re now planting,” said Bob Spencer, president of Palmetto, Fla.-based West Coast Tomato LLC.

West Coast Tomato has been shipping its product since October and will wind up the season in early June, Spencer said.

“But, we are running year-round, just getting fields ready,” he said. 

“Basically, we’re harvesting when it’s not raining in Florida.”

West Coast Tomato’s volume this year has been running ahead of year-earlier figures, Spencer said.

“We’ve had good yields, good crops and good markets, so we’re not getting too far away from wood to knock on,” said Spencer, whose company has about 3,000 acres in the Immokalee and Palmetto, Fla., areas.

Vegetables

There have been timely rains, growers say.

“We’re rolling full speed, other than the 5-inch rain we had over three days about two weeks ago (in late January),” said Perry Yance, assistant vegetable farm manager for Duda Farm Fresh Foods Inc., the fresh division of Oviedo, Fla.-based A. Duda & Sons Inc.

That downpour was little more than “an interruption,” Yance said.

“We needed some water and got plenty,” he said. “We were harvesting, and it interrupted that, but we’re back in.”

Duda has been harvesting celery since December and will continue through the end of April, Yance said.

“In January and February, we’re planting and harvesting every crop we have,” he said.

Quality and volume have been good, Yance said.

“Markets are strong on celery and radishes, but the leaf markets are kind of flat,” he said.

Duda grows its vegetables on 6,000 acres in the Belle Glade, Fla., area, Yance said.

Corn and vegetable grower-shipper Scotlynn Sweet Pac Growers LLC, based in Belle Glade, also has reported good growing conditions this year.

“We expect to start in early March and have promotable volumes from early April to June 1,” said Bryan Biederman, partner. 

“Going into the spring, we focus on sweet corn. Later, we have radishes, beans, cabbage, etc. The whole focus until mid-March is sweet corn. Cabbage and others wrap up around April 1.” 

Biederman described growing conditions this year as “fantastic”.

“We got a hit of rain when we needed it,” he said.

Arthur Ellis, salesman with Fort Myers, Fla.-based Weis-Buy Farms Inc., agreed.

“It’s good tomato weather,” he said.

It has been good for peppers, whose season runs from early October to the end of May, Ellis said.

“Quality has been good because weather has been good,” he said.

This year should see year-on-year volume increases in most, if not all, items, said Mindy Lee, bureau chief with Fresh From Florida, a marketing arm of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

“We don’t know how many acres growers plant in advance, but based on shipment volume from the early season, we expect increased volume this season over last for most crops,” she said. 

“Last year’s shipments were severely affected by Hurricane Irma, and what we are seeing so far this year suggests a partial, although not complete, recovery of production capacity.”

There have been a few tussles with weather in northern Florida, said Johnny Lunsford, salesman with the Palatka, Fla., office of Raleigh, N.C.-based L&M Cos.

“It’s been quite a struggle here in Palatka,” he said. “We had a significant amount of rain throughout the growing season.”

Most cabbage, broccoli and greens, which were in production in mid-February, were late, Lunsford said.

“Volumes were off significantly, but we’re making the best of it,” he said.

L&M’s production of cabbage, greens and broccoli began in mid-December and will run into early May, Lunsford said.

“Then, we do have potatoes coming up,” he said.

The potato crop was “looking good” enough Feb. 12 that the first digging might get underway weeks ahead of normal, Lunsford said.

“We’ll start probably a little early this year in early April, compared to the end of April (in a normal year),” he said. 

Lake Wales, Fla.-based Mack Farms Inc. started digging potatoes in the first week of February, said Nick Leger, sales director.

“Right now, we just got started with decent volumes,” he said Feb. 12. 

“We’re currently are seeing very good yields and excellent quality.”

Mack Farms has about 1,600 acres of potatoes, Leger said.

Parrish, Fla.-based Jones Potato Farm also was harvesting, owner Alan Jones said.

“We have a nice crop,” he said.

Jones also grows green beans, and the company was looking to begin that deal in late March after having finished a fall crop in December, he said.

The spring green bean harvest will run through late May, Jones said.

Other grower-shippers reported similar “good crop” situations.

“We expect good volume,” said Jim Monteith, sales manager with Myakka City, Fla.-based Utopia Packing LLC, which has bell peppers and cucumbers.

The spring season will start in March, as scheduled, Monteith said.

Immokalee-based Florida Specialties Inc. offers the last leg of its November-to-May volumes of green beans, eggplant, bell peppers, squash and specialty peppers, said Chris Tordonato, sales manager.

“We’ve had some cool temps through January, but no real adversity,” he said.

Immokalee-based Oakes Farms Inc. is preparing for an on-time start for its season of 92 commodities, said Steve Veneziano, director of operations.

“I’d say it’s looking to be a great season,” he said, noting that the deal is expected to run March 10 to May 15. “We’re 100% on-time.”

Sweet corn harvesting was underway in Homestead, Fla, featuring “nice quality with average yields,” said Ted Wanless, chief operating officer at Belle Glade, Fla.-based S.M. Jones & Co. Inc.

“Cool wet weather has been a change from past several seasons — will hopefully keep crops coming in steady volume,” he said.

The Homestead season began Jan. 2 and runs through mid-March. Glades corn runs mid-March through Memorial Day, Wanless said.

“Volume should be similar to last season’s acreage,” Wanless said.

Fruit

Florida’s blueberry season, which generally runs from March through May, was looking promising, said Brittany Lee, president of the Florida Blueberry Growers Association in Gainesville.

“We expect Florida production to be strong, exceeding last season,” she said.

Teddy Koukoulis, blueberry operations director with Plant City, Fla.-based Wish Farms, said conditions were right for a good crop. 

“The crop is looking very good so far,” he said. “The state had a lot of chill hours, which really helps production.”

Wish Farms is planning to harvest from mid-March until Memorial Day, Koukoulis said.

“We anticipate the warm-up in temperatures will bring harvest on earlier this season,” he said, noting that Florida growers should pack nearly 4 million pounds of blueberries this year, which would be up from 3.4 million a year ago.

Honey tangerines were dominating citrus production in mid-February, said Al Finch, president of Florida Classic Growers, the marketing arm of the Dundee Citrus Growers Association in Dundee, Fla.

“We look to have those available until sometime in early April,” he said.
 
“Our valencia oranges, we started harvesting last week — Feb. 4 — and look to have those available through May. Movement has been steady.” 

Peach harvesting likely will begin “with light volumes” the week of March 18 and steadily increase in the weeks that follow, Finch said.

“The peak week on promotional opportunities for Florida peaches will be the weeks of April 22 and April 29,” he said.

Watermelon

Watermelon suppliers are expecting good quality and ample volumes, said Brian Arrigo, president of Southern Corporate Packers Inc. in Immokalee.

“It’s probably been highest prices this winter than we’ve seen in a long time due to the hurricanes in Mexico,” he said. “And, there have been some white fly issues in Central America.”

Arrigo said his company’s Immokalee production likely will start at the end of March and run through the end of May, with North Florida melons going from late May through June.

“It could be a week or two earlier than normal,” he said. “That’s good. It stretches out our season.”

Southern Corporate Packers also grows watermelon in Georgia, Missouri, Indiana and Delaware, which enables the company to have melons available through December, Arrigo said.

Lake Wales, Fla.-based McMelon Inc., a subsidiary of Lake Wales-based Mack Farms Inc., is expecting its first watermelon around May 1, said Nick Leger, sales director.

“It’s looking like an early crop because they haven’t had any major temperature drops, frosts or real heavy fluctuations of temperatures,” he said. “We’ve had steady and constant temperatures.”

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