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As economy and weather improve, Paradise Produce thaws out and thrives

by Chip Carter | January 03, 2011
As the new year rang in, Joel Silverman, owner of Paradise Produce Distributors in Lakeland, FL, was hoping a flood of strawberries would follow.

December was pretty much a washout due to several nights of sub-freezing weather spread over three weeks. At a time when Florida strawberry growers would normally be harvesting thousands of acres, they were instead picking hundreds.

"We're buying and selling pallets at a time when we should be doing half- loads," Mr. Silverman told The Produce News Dec. 30. “The weather’s the worst it’s been since 1873. There’s not a whole helluva lot we can do about it.”

Mother Nature was doing her best to cooperate as 2011 dawned, with sunny skies, low humidity and nighttime lows in the mid-50s expected for the first half of January and likely beyond, according to the National Weather Service in Tampa, FL.

That is good news, but Mr. Silverman worries about the lost market opportunity that cost berry growers and other Florida farmers — and brokers like Paradise — much of their early-season volume.

“It’s a very, very serious situation. It’s going to cost this state and these growers millions at a time when they really can’t afford to lose anything at all,” he said. “We lost the first two months of this year [with freezes in January and February 2010], we started off coming back in this fall deal fairly good, had a good November, December looked like it was shaping up, and then Mother Nature throws us another curveball. Not only has it affected the strawberries, it’s affected everything.”

Farming is always a crapshoot, but it is also representative of the American way at its best, Mr. Silverman said. “We’re in business that’s true capitalism; it’s supply and demand. With $44 beans retailing at two to three dollars a pound, there are a lot of products people can go without. We’re not selling medicine here,” he said.

As damage from the freezes becomes more apparent in coming days and weeks, “There’s going to be quality and price issues that make marketing all this product a little difficult as we go along. What we saw last spring was everybody replanted after the freezes and got back to normal; prices were so low the growers were losing money with a bumper crop. For the last year, we’ve been cursed with a perfect storm here.”

On the plus side, there are signs the economy is moving again — always of benefit to the produce industry.

“The economy seems like it’s improving to some extent. I don’t know how long it will sustain itself, or if it will at all, but all indicators point to a little bit better climate than we had,” Mr. Silverman said.

That may be enough to keep Florida farmers in the game, despite bad weather, reams of new food-safety regulations and increasing pressure from foreign competition.

“We’ve gone through all sorts of food-safety issues, canker and greening, freezes, diseases — and growers in Mexico are coming on very, very strong and they’re affecting us too,” Mr. Silverman said. “But these growers are a very resilient group of people. They were raised that way. When a fork in the road presents itself, they will find a way to get things done. Everybody in this business is faced with issues. The only thing you can do is buckle down and keep going and hope better days are coming.”

He concluded, “Really as an industry we’re very, very fortunate. There are many industries and individuals who are selling or manufacturing items where there’s no demand at all. Nobody has stopped eating yet. Some years are better than other years. But if you hustle and treat people right, you’re always going to make some kind of living here.”