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Fresh from Florida program helps farmers move product

by Chip Carter | April 07, 2010
In South Korea, thousands of people sat down to a breakfast of Florida pink grapefruit this morning. Earlier this year, thousands more in Ireland got a taste of sunshine in the form of Florida strawberries. In fact, due in large part to the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services' decade-old Fresh from Florida marketing campaign, millions of consumers regularly enjoy Florida produce in 15 countries around the world all year.

The program began inauspiciously in 2000 with a small campaign to judge consumer interest in Florida tomatoes. That test drive put Florida produce on ad in 298 stores.

By last year, the Fresh from Florida program placed product in 416,000 individual ads for more than 10,000 stores, representing dozens of retail chains in 15 countries.

Somebody is pounding the pavement.

"We're out there doing it. We have a good crew and a lot of things have happened in that time period," said Dan Sleep, a supervisor and senior analyst for the FDACS. "We went out in 2002 and met directly with category buyers around the U.S., and that propelled us into different categories immediately. We began to develop a lot of different avenues -- win a vacation to Florida, or contests, or direct incentive programs. And by the end of 2002, the program included about 5,000 stores."

Not only did the Fresh from Florida program get product in stores, it also made Florida produce a branded mainstay in chain and individual store ads. In the 1990s, Florida's marketing approach was much different. Without a coordinated effort, Florida produce moved on reputation and availability. Typically, store ads would highlight one or two Florida products in campaigns that ran for about three weeks.

"As we went out, we were teaching retailers when product was available and providing different incentives -- not just to the Publix of the world but a Bravo down in south Florida or a Fortinos up in Canada with 20 stores, or a Metro, or Sobeys with hundreds," Mr. Sleep said. "We reached out to a lot of different stores to see what it would take to get them to put our products on ad and put the Fresh from Florida name in their circulars. At the same time, what we were trying to do was get them to build up their ads, ads they wouldn't ordinarily run. While that was going on, we skyrocketed individual store ads."

In 2001, the Fresh from Florida program had deals with four retail chains running storewide promotions. By 2004, that number had jumped to 18. In 2008, the number hit 32. This year, the state is working with 40 retail partners representing more than 10,000 stores in 15 countries.

"So now instead of a Publix or Kroger going on ad two or three times and maybe not making much of an impact on us, retail stores are running Fresh from Florida 30-something times a year, which is enough to move a lot of product," Mr. Sleep said.

Prior to 2002, the Fresh from Florida program was featured in about 5,000 individual store ads a year. Success from early efforts led to more financing, and by 2002, the program appeared in 22,000 store ads. By 2004, that number was 165,000. Last year, the Fresh from Florida logo was featured in 413,000 individual store ads.

So how does that increase in visibility correlate with Florida produce sales? In 2003, Florida strawberries were featured in 5,800 store ads and the industry tallied sales of $129 million. By 2008, the strawberry program was in 24,000 ads and sales had soared to $249 million. This year's preliminary numbers show 25,000 ads and $313 million in revenue. "We're keeping a lot of pressure on the product, and we have a lot of understanding of where that product is going," Mr. Sleep said.

In 2001, Florida watermelon sales were $42 million -- down from $72 million just three years before. In 2002, the Fresh from Florida program stepped in and placed 2,100 store ads. Sales rose to $62 million. By 2008, Florida watermelons were in 11,000 store ads and sales topped $140 million. The state watermelon growers association has turned over primary marketing efforts to the state program.

Blueberries are another success story. "When we started working with them, they were one of those little niche products that really hadn't ever done much in Florida," Mr. Sleep said. In 2001, revenues were less than $12 million and had never been higher. By 2003, the program had Florida blueberries in several hundred-store ads, and the market grew to $18 million. For the last few years, blueberries have been featured in 4,000 to 6,000 ads annually, and sales have soared to $73 million.

The Fresh from Florida program's efforts have resulted in volume and price increases for the state's growers. "I'll take either, but it's nice when you can get both," Mr. Sleep said.

In 2003, Florida strawberry farmers moved 13 million flats of product; last year, that number was 20 million. In 2001, Florida growers got 5.7 cents a pound for a 740 million-pound watermelon crop; by 2008, that price was 16 cents per pound for an 860-million-pound crop.

Mr. Sleep is quick to note that the marketing efforts would be for naught without consistent, high-quality product to back them up. "Never discount growers putting a great product out there. Without that, we can't do anything," Mr. Sleep said. "The farmer has continually produced superior product; they have not stumbled or missed a trick in that process. These guys are expert at protecting their product and the quality of it and getting it to market without flaw -- the controlled chain of command is almost perfect."

The Fresh from Florida program features 12-15 core commodities, along with dozens of niche products. It is now common to see as many as six Florida products featured in a single ad. The program also helps introduce new products, like the Florida Sweet peach, a new cultivar that entered the marketplace in 2008 and is gaining market traction. "There are lots of opportunities in Florida, and we're just sitting here looking for them and trying to help when we can," Mr. Sleep said.

"Building strong retail partnerships throughout the world has substantially altered our ability to directly assist and influence decisions to feature Fresh from Florida agricultural products from Tallahassee to Toronto," Mr. Sleep said. "Building upon a solid agricultural economic foundation creates jobs and infuses millions of additional dollars into our tax base."