The radiance strawberry variety is popular in Florida. Photo courtesy Grimes Produce
Improving varieties and the continuing hope of harvest automation in Florida are two of the reasons strawberry marketers see bright hopes for the future.
The list of challenges for Florida growers is long and includes finding adequate labor, securing housing for workers, fighting disease problems and dealing with unfriendly weather, said Tom O’Brien, president of C&D Fruit & Vegetable Co., Bradenton, Fla.
Retail standards for “perfection” also represent a challenge, even as many of those same retailers talk about the need to reduce food waste.
Despite the challenges, O’Brien said strawberries remain a growth category and fit nicely with consumer trends toward healthy eating.
One of the ongoing challenges in every season is to make sure promotions match up with volume peaks during the season, said Craig Casca, sales manager for Los Olivos, Calif.-based Red Blossom.
“It is very important to think ahead and make sure we are lined up with good ads when the volume comes,” he said.
“This stabilizes the market for the whole industry and helps to get the freshest, highest quality berries to the customers, and ensures repeat purchases.”
Swings in weather between cold and hot also can be a challenge for the Florida strawberry deal, said Cindy Jewell, vice president of marketing for California Giant Berry Farms.
“These type of shifts can definitely impact our crop forecast, so ensuring that we are harvesting fruit in multiple regions at the same time helps to even that out,” she said.
Better performing varieties are driving demand, said Shawn Butler, salesman with Grimes Produce Co. LLC, Plant City, Fla.
Sensation and radiance are popular Florida varieties, he said, and the Florida beauty is a variety that has started to gain traction.
“(The varieties) are sweeter, bigger and redder,” he said.
“The university has done a good job of developing new varieties, and there are more varieties in the pipeline,” he said.
Varieties grown in Florida five years ago are no longer planted, he said.
Instead of 2,500 flats to the acre years ago, the newer strawberry varieties can yield up to 4,500 flats per acre.
Although the radiance is perhaps the heaviest planted variety, Gary Wishnatzki, president and CEO of Plant City, Fla.-based Wish Farms, said Wish Farms leans heavily to the sweet sensation variety.
“The sweet sensation holds sweetness and flavor throughout the marketing season and also holds shape and size,” he said.
“We are looking forward to seeing how the sensation and Florida beauty both perform this year and hope they live up to our expectations so we can expand with these two varieties in coming seasons,” Jewell said.
The promise of automated harvest of strawberries may have a long way to go, but it will be welcomed when it arrives, Butler said.
“I think it will be viable down the road,” he said.
“The technology is there, now it just fine tuning it and making it faster and more affordable.”
While the industry awaits automation, growers are also paying attention to the pressure of real estate development in the region.
Butler said strawberry growers are facing development pressures from the east and west.
“If you are leasing land and developer offers a premium for that land, you are going to lose your acreage,” he said.