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New Plant City facility makes SunnyRidge a major Florida strawberry player

by Chip Carter | December 13, 2009
PLANT CITY, FL -- For now, the offices are empty, the paint is so fresh one can still smell it and workers continue to scurry about putting finishing touches on a just-renovated 51,000-square-foot facility that will serve as headquarters for SunnyRidge Farms' Florida strawberry operations.

Within days, as office equipment and custom-manufactured pre-coolers arrive, the facility will become a hub of activity. Already, thousands of pre- made flats and cartons are stacked and waiting in the new SunnyRidge warehouse as the Florida strawberry season gets into full swing. SunnyRidge entered the Florida strawberry market last season through a lease arrangement with a Plant City cooler and packer.

Sal Toscano, an industry veteran who will head SunnyRidge's new facility, told The Produce News Dec. 8, "We saw the value in having a facility like this, so here we are. Now that we're here and have established a presence, we'll be even bigger next year."

Mr. Toscano said that SunnyRidge should ship 800,000 flats of strawberries from the new facility this season, "and I'm actually hopeful of a little bit better than that."

He added that the new facility should be fully operational by Dec. 15 and "the entire project is on time. Even if we're not operational until the first of the year, we'll be fine. We can get berries pre-cooled and loaded through the holidays."

The new facility will process berries from two farms owned by SunnyRidge, about 140 acres worth, as well as berries from another 150 acres owned by associate growers. SunnyRidge's primary production focus - roughly 60 percent - will be on the Festival variety, while Treasures will make up 30 percent and Radiance and "a few Camino Reals" will make up the rest, Mr. Toscano said.

The new facility features a drive-in, drive-out bay for easy unloading of trucks from the farms. There are three cooling rooms and 10 sealed loading bays in refrigerated space; once product is unloaded from farm trucks, the cold chain is never broken until delivery trucks arrive at their destinations. Mr. Toscano said that the new facility provides plenty of room for SunnyRidge to grow. In fact, there is so much space that plans call for a spring run of blueberries once the strawberry season ends in April.

The new facility will also house the firm's logistics department, though the existing facility in Winter Haven will continue to serve as the company's Florida headquarters and still process some product, such as blueberries for farmers who are closer to Winter Haven than Plant to City.

All of Florida's strawberry production, which is to say all U.S. winter strawberry production, comes from within a 30-mile radius of Plant City.

The Florida strawberry industry "just grew up in Plant City and it stayed here," said Mr. Toscano, who has worked in the area for two decades. "If you're going to be in the Florida strawberry business, you have to be here. And as long as we're going to be here, we're going to do it the SunnyRidge way. SunnyRidge has an outstanding reputation, and I think most of the trade knows that. We've had a very, very warm reception from the Plant City strawberry community."