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ATLANTA, GA — The fresh produce industry held its annual equivalent of the Super Bowl, the Produce Marketing Association Fresh Summit trade show, at the Georgia World Congress Center here Oct. 14-17 and the Florida contingent turned out in force to represent the Sunshine State’s vast array of fruits and vegetables.

Dozens of Florida companies were represented at PMA. Many had their own booths, while others banded together in the state Department of Agriculture’s sprawling Fresh from Florida pavilion, which had a prime spot on the show floor.

“Florida is kind of the breadbasket of the East Coast in the winter, so we’re feeding half the country and that’s an important statement to make at a show like this. This is the biggest fresh produce show in the country and the most important,” said Andy Brown, vice president of marketing for Fellsmere, FL-based B&W Quality Growers. “We’ve introduced new products, we’ve rebranded our products for retail and food service, and the response, the reception, has been outstanding. We consider ourselves a small company. We’re the largest in the world at what we do, but being the largest watercress grower is kind of like being the largest toothpick manufacturer, you’ve kind of got to know your role. It’s a niche. For a lot of little guys like us to have a credible presence here, to be able to get together and be in the middle of the show, we could never afford that kind of presence on our own.”

Thanks in part to that prime placement, B&W landed three recipes in the top 10 of the show’s annual contest, judged by buyers for major retailers like Kroger and Publix.

Said Florida Department of Agriculture Executive Chef and Culinary Ambassador Justin Timineri, who dished out more than 3,000 servings of mouthwatering Fresh from Florida fare, “We’re able to get out here and work with the buyers and the purchasers of all these different companies, they get to come in and sample our products and talk with the growers, the presidents of the companies, so it’s a great way to make connections and really learn about all the wonderful and amazing different things that we have to offer from Florida. There are lots of booths here that are doing some cooking, but there seems to be more that aren’t. The best way to really understand is to taste what’s going on. We like to prepare fun foods and new and different things, and with all the commodities we have in Florida there’s an endless supply of what we can create. And our Florida companies get to see what other companies around the nation are doing also, which is a great advantage for us. Plus it’s always a lot of fun coming here and cooking.”

Strawberries with a toasted marshmallow topping were a convention favorite at the Florida pavilion, as was corn, potato and sausage chowder. But the biggest hit might have been the state industry’s rising star, the “Tasti-Lee” tomato, birthed at the University of Florida Institute of Food & Agricultural Sciences and just now coming into significant commercial production.

Wimauma, FL-based Tomato Thyme Corp.’s Red Diamond Farms is one of only three entities licensed to grow and distribute the “Tasti-Lee” and the company’s booth enjoyed nonstop traffic.

“We’re getting great response from the retail end. Retailers have come by and all shown interest — they all want the tomato once they taste it,” said Red Diamond Director of Sales and Marketing Michael Lacey. “It’s exciting to see so many people coming to our booth.”

Added Vice President and Chief Financial Officer David Shashura, “I wish we had a tape recorder here to get the unsolicited testimonials of the people who are all saying the same thing: ‘I haven’t had a tomato like this in 15 to 20 years.’ These are our peers and they’re all saying the same thing.”

Said Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, “This show presents a phenomenal opportunity for the industry to showcase itself. The amount of traffic, the amount of buzz we saw this year at PMA is very encouraging for the industry. There’s a lot of data coming out showing we’re moving in the right direction in terms of consumption — we’ve just got to build the numbers up. For Florida that presents remarkable opportunity, particularly given our market windows: We have something 12 months out of the year. There’s a lot of buzz here and we just need to take advantage of it.”

Grammy award-winning country music star and Quincy, FL, native Billy Dean spent his days performing at the Naturipe Farms booth for the second straight year, singing songs about the land for the Estero, FL-based berry grower. With a dozen Top 10 hits and four gold albums, Mr. Dean wouldn’t seem to be the troubadour type. Yet there he was, performing periodically throughout the day for crowds ranging from a handful to a few dozen.

“It is tough to stand up with no one here and perform. You feel kind of like a big loser,” laughed Mr. Dean, who just the night before had played to a huge crowd in New Orleans. “But this is a chance for me to connect with my fans. The music industry is in shambles right now. What I’m finding is that music really shouldn’t be used as a commodity any more — music is more powerful as a marketing tool. You want to drive traffic, you want to draw people to your brand, nothing does that better than music.”

Mr. Dean’s presence shows the power — and money — at work in the produce industry today. Mr. Dean serves as a corporate spokesman, not a booth-corner busker. While the crowds might have seemed paltry, in essence Mr. Dean performed for 18,000 people a handful at a time.

“The great thing about Naturipe is they had a message they wanted to get out. It’s farm-to-table, there are 700 farms that grow under their brand. What I try to do is give them an emotional connection to what they do and really try to define on a different level what they do,” said Mr. Dean. “I grew up farming in north Florida plowing soybeans and peanuts and most of my family’s in Florida and it means a lot to me. Farmers earn their place on earth.”