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Well-Pict: Fla. production up, proprietary berries gaining strength

by Chip Carter | January 03, 2011
Now in its third season growing in Florida, Watsonville, CA-based Well-Pict Inc. again increased production acreage this year and continues to move toward growing nothing but proprietary strawberries in Florida.

Well-Pict prefers to grow proprietary varietals, but its original California nursery stock proved unsuitable for Florida's hot, wet climate. The company had some success with a new cultivar last year which represented about one- third of its crop, with the rest comprised of Festivals, Treasures and Radiance. This year, Well-Pict increased the percentage of its proprietary cultivars in a process that ideally soon will have it growing nothing but its own berries in Florida’s sandy soil.

"It’s still a work in progress, with some promising cultivars, but it will take several growing seasons to develop a commercially successful proprietary variety," said Sales Manager Dan Crowley. “It will happen. ... It does take time to develop a berry that’s specific to that climate. We’ll solve the puzzle, [but] it does take time to build up the population. If you’ve got a cultivar you like, it’s seven years before it gets to market. You have lot tests, road tests, you clean up the genes, build up the plant population at the nursery level.”

Well-Pict researchers are searching for a variety suited for Florida that has a good flavor profile, appearance, aroma and yield.

“Wouldn’t that be nice to hit all those at once?” Mr. Crowley asked. “The first and foremost thing we look for is the taste, the flavor profile; if you don’t have that [in a cultivar], you close down that particular variety. Appearance, aroma and the yield — those are the things we look for next. We are grower- based, farm-based; that’s where it starts and ends. If you can’t make yield, if you can’t make profits at that level, you don’t belong in the business.”

Well-Pict is partnered with Wimauma, FL-based Jaymar Produce, a long-time Florida produce grower and shipper. Jaymar is shipping berries from Wimauma with the “Well-Pict Florida” label, Mr. Crowley said. “We have an excellent working relationship; they’re straight shooters, as are we, which guarantees success.”

That relationship is also in its third year and has “worked out very well,” he said. “The deal with us is, we’ve got trading partners we try to supply 12 months a year. We do produce 12 months a year out of California, but it’s very, very light in December, January, February. That’s why we figured it would be a good match to partner up in Florida with a legitimate partner. It tends to be a geographical distribution.”

Well-Pict’s Florida experience has to-date been “absolutely positive,” Mr. Crowley said. “It has been very well received by our trading partners, and the partnership we’ve formed there has been very, very beneficial for us and for Jaymar.”

The wintry December that brought a half-dozen nights of sub-freezing weather to Florida strawberry fields in a span of three weeks was difficult to deal with, but Well-Pict’s fields came through in good shape, according to Mr. Crowley.

“Whenever you grow a crop to harvest in the middle of winter, you’re going to have crop interruptions, be it rain and/or cold. Rain is easier to deal with, since it only affects ripe fruit, so you strip off colored fruit and fresh-pack the next round. With a freeze, you have potential for more damage, as you can have damage to all fruit stages as well as the plant itself. Fortunately for us, we were able to get 'iced over’ and have suffered minimally.”

Mr. Crowley estimated that no more than 10 percent of the December crop was lost despite the abysmal cold.