When Ted Campbell, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Association in Dover, FL, joined the firm in early August, he brought many years of retail experience with him. That experience is proving helpful in the production and wholesale ends of the business.
"I was the corporate director of produce and floral for Supervalu in Minneapolis for many years," said Mr. Campbell. "Historically, there has always been a disconnect between farmers and retailers, especially regarding prices. When the market is depressed, there can be animosity between the two sectors. When there is a market glut, issues tighten up. My retail experience brings more understanding of the weeks that are historically slow at retail, like between Christmas and New Years. The business is just not there, and there is little you can do to make it happen. It's a big challenge to predict production as related to retail activity. Retailers have long lead times with their print advertising and less flexibility in their ability to move quickly when market conditions change."
Mr. Campbell's goals are to develop a network of retailers that can respond more quickly when production fluctuates and to help producers understand the challenges retailers face.
"Retailers' costs are going up just as suppliers' are," he said. "As costs of fertilizer, containers, packaging, equipment and all other necessities increase, that bottom of the ladder balloons throughout the entire chain to the consumer. Add these factors to the short window we're working in, and it gets even tougher with strawberries - the window shrinks every year because production on both sides of the country (Florida and California) increases every year. And now Mexican production is also cutting into the movement. Also, new varieties are being developed that cut into Florida's season."
Typically, Florida's strawberry movement runs from Thanksgiving to Easter, when California is not producing. But the window is shrinking because of new varietal development that enables both states to produce earlier varieties -- and ones that can last longer into the season. Combined with Mexico's production, it is becoming a more competitive market each year.
"This year, about 75 percent of Florida's crop was running behind in early December because of cool nights in Florida," said Mr. Campbell. "As of December 12, plants are typically being picked. But with the cool weather this year, it didn't happen. Growers pick strawberries in a progressive harvest, but they were just getting a trickle in early December. The plants are a little confused, but the fruit is there. The big fear was that all the fruit would come right at Christmas, when the market is soft."
The association is a voluntary organization, so not all acreage is reported to it. The Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services issues statistical data at the end of each strawberry season. The department's report for last year showed that the state had 8,300 acres harvested.
"The reports we are getting from growers this season indicate that there is an increase in acreage again this year," said Mr. Campbell. "There are several new players, including SunnyRidge Farm and Dole Berry, and other growers are reporting increased acreage. The general consensus is that there will be more acreage this year than last year, and last year was spectacular. We are anticipating a tremendous year."
Valentine's Day continues to account for the highest demand for strawberries, and, typically, February is the peak of harvest time for Florida growers. Mr. Campbell said that strawberries are right up there with the demand on the floral category at times.
"In my retail days, the strawberry ads were the most frightening to write because anything can happen, such as unexpected bad weather," said Mr. Campbell. "It is hard to communicate to the plants that an important holiday is about to occur. Often everyone is trying to outguess everyone else about what will happen with the harvest. At the store level, it was not unusual for buyers to over order, anticipating they would receive only half of what they ordered. The industry -- producers and retailers alike -- work in a porthole when all the fruit comes on at the same time."
The Florida Strawberry Association held its annual awards banquet on Dec. 12. At the event, fundraising totals for scholarships are announced and the highest production awards for small, medium and large farms are awarded. There are also handler, service, public service and other awards issued. At the December event, Tommy Brock was inducted into the Strawberry Hall of Fame. Mr. Brock was the previous owner of Brock Farms Inc. in Plant City, FL, which was purchased by Wishnatzki Farms in 2006. Mr. Brock is now retired.
(For more on Florida strawberries, see the Jan. 5 issue of The Produce News.)