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Sweet potatoes lead produce hit parade in North Carolina

RALEIGH, NC—North Carolina produce crops brought in $608 million last year for fruits, vegetables, nuts and berries. And sweet potatoes led the way, Kevin D. Hardison is quick to point out. Hardison is a marketing specialist with a 14-year career in the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in Raleigh that brings a working knowledge of the 60 kinds of produce grown in the Tarheel State.

KEVIN-D.-HARDISON-NCDOAGCSKevin D. Hardison“We’re ranked first in the nation for growing sweet potatoes,” Hardison noted, gesturing toward racks of publications touting North Carolina vodka, butter and chips made from sweet potatoes, microwave-ready yams and even recipes for gourmet meals with sweet potato French fries.  

The Johnston County native who grew up in Benson, NC, has seen trends come and go since he joined the state ag agency in 2000. They often come back again, like the emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables in school lunch programs, which began in Tarheel schools 17 years ago with a farm-to-school program, he recalled. Or the emphasis on locally grown produce, which his agency began promoting 30 years ago.

There are always new developments to keep produce marketing interesting. “Kale, for example,” Hardison said, “is all the rage right now. Five years ago nobody had heard of kale.” One Tarheel grape grower has come up with a muscadine-flavored smoothie drink, he added, “and growers have added all kinds of fruit sauces, jams and jellies.” Another change: other state agencies are stepping up to the plate and pitching in to promote produce.

“In recent years, the state health agency has prioritized fresh fruits and vegetables as part of a healthy diet,” he said,”while the education department has emphasized them in the school lunch program and the commerce department supports agriculture as a vehicle for rural development.“  

The state operates four farmers markets, has 213 independent farmers markets and in the past five years has added 17 food hubs, wholesalers who handle logistics for local growers.

In recognition of ag’s importance as the state’s top industry (tourism is second), Gov. Pat McCrory proclaimed July as Got to Be NC Agriculture Month. “We created the Got to Be NC marketing program almost a decade ago to help consumers identify local products no matter where they shop,” Steve Troxler, North Carolina's agriculture commissioner, said in a statement.

Peach Days and Watermelon Days were featured in July at state-operated farmers markets in Asheville, Charlotte, Colfax and Raleigh, and a restaurant week in mid-July spotlighted restaurants in eight counties using local produce ingredients in their menu offerings.

Total value of North Carolina agricultural exports, including products like tobacco and eggs, exceeded $3.7 billion in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, an increase of 189 percent from 2005. “Agricultural exports help boost farm prices and income, while supporting about 68,000 jobs on and off the farm in food processing, storage and transportation,” Hardison observed. Because of its location in the Southeast, North Carolina’s fresh produce can reach 65 percent of the U.S. population within 24 hours.

Food safety is an ever-present issue, Hardison observed, along with federal land use policy and a seasonal labor supply. An estimated 35,000 migrant workers pass through North Carolina each year. “The produce industry needs to keep a watchful eye on policy issues, invest for the crops of the future and strengthen local marketing efforts,” said Hardison.

PAIA provides tips to promote Peruvian asparagus

In an effort to help retailers promote Peruvian asparagus, the Peruvian Asparagus Importers Association has developed a Category Management Plan, which is chock full of data as well display and merchandising ideas.

Priscilla Lleras, PAIA coordinator, said the plan is available free of charge to all retailers either through members of the association or by contacting Lleras via email at prestige@1scom.net.

Among the display suggestions that research has shown to be effective is strategically displaying the category during peak and non-peak holidays. A well-positioned display will ensure that consumers see it, which will increase sales. The plan says a variety of displays will work but the bigger the better, especially when on ad.

Offering consumers a variety of sizes, colors and packaging has proven to be effective in increasing consumer purchase penetration and frequency of purchase.

“Showcase unique colors, green, white and purple asparagus,” the plan states. “Displaying white asparagus next to green and/or purple offers consumers with more choices and presents a contrasting, attractive and vibrant display.”

Asparagus has a good nutritional story to tell and the Category Management Plan recommends highlighting those nutritional benefits by providing brochures and signage. Featuring recipes and usage ideas is another PAIA suggestions for increasing sales.

And finally, the PAIA documents reminds retailers to refrigerate and hydrate asparagus to maintain quality and increase its shelf-life.

With regard to promotion and advertising, PAIA recommends many different strategies, including using point-of-sale material, cross merchandising, using incentive programs and featuring in-store demos.

“POS material is especially valuable for educating consumers on recipes, usage and nutritional benefits of asparagus,” according to the plan.

PAIA says some of the possible cross merchandising products that fit well with asparagus are salads, oils, dressing, deli products, cheese and wines. It also recommends providing a complete meal solution for customers that includes asparagus by promoting with meat or seafood.     

According to the PAIA Category Management Plan, in-store demo programs have a proven record of increasing consumer awareness and the purchase of fresh asparagus as an everyday item.

California Avocado Commission to continue promotional activities through Labor Day

With a shorter crop this year than in 2013, the California avocado industry anticipated an earlier finish to the shipping season, with heavy volumes well into August but declining the latter part of August and only moderate availability thereafter.

Due to the lighter supplies and the earlier finish, the California Avocado Commission will not carry its promotional activities as late into the season this year as it did in 2013. But those efforts will continue through Labor Day.

“The California Avocado Commission has key account retail and foodservice programs scheduled through Labor Day,” said Jan DeLyser, vice president of marketing for the commission, said in a written statement to The Produce News.

“On the consumer front, we are continuing our advertising campaign and introducing the second year of CAC’s program designed to build consumption of avocados at breakfast time,” Delyser said. “For the latter, we’re launching a new web page on July 30 at www.californiaavocado.com/avocados-for-breakfast, and will be sharing dozens of new breakfast recipes and usage tips for California avocados online and via social media. A dedicated email will feature an article by Registered Dietitian (RD) Michele Dudash. Another well-respected RD, Bonnie Taub-Dix will help promote CAC’s avocados for breakfast campaign via public relations outreach.”

For retailers, “we are supplying ‘Wake Up to Breakfast’ recipe brochures that can be merchandised on California avocado displays,” she said.

The commission “also maintains online and social media programs throughout the year to satisfy our fans. We share information about the growing and handling practices of premium California avocados and their season, as well as providing recipes and usage ideas,” DeLyser continued.

In the foodservice sector, CAC “continues to promote California avocado usage through innovative menu ideas and limited time offers,” DeLyser said in the statement. “These have not only been very successful at building demand in foodservice, but also have the additional benefit of introducing consumers to new usage ideas they can try at home.

Datassential Insider reported that this year it is ‘all about the avocado’ and noted growth in the following menu areas: sandwiches (+18 percent), burgers (+32 percent), pizza (+22 percent), and egg dishes (+15 percent). All of these growth areas have been part of CAC’s targeted outreach.”

In the retail arena this year, DeLyser said, “we are excited with the progress the California avocado industry has made in making it easier for shoppers to tell when they are buying California avocado by improving on-fruit country of origin identification. We originally planned to test the concept of a California Avocado brand label at retail this year, but adoption of the idea has been widespread. Retailer reaction also has been very positive. Some retailers who like to promote locally-grown produce have expanded on the idea with their own point-of-sale materials trumpeting the California origin.”

Another CAC marketing program “that has made great strides,” Delyser said in the statement, “is our American Summer Holidays promotion, with emphasis on the Fourth of July.” CAC started developing the promotional connection between avocados and “American Summer Holidays” about four years ago, she said. “It simply made sense to create California avocado recipes and usage ideas that tied in with summer gatherings during the peak of our season. The American Summer Holidays promotions have proven to be successful with this past Fourth of July exceeding all records for consumption (including Super Bowl and Cinco de Mayo) with 109.3 million pounds.”

With a smaller crop than last year, California had shipped about 230 million pounds of fruit as of July 21, with the season “about 65 percent complete” in terms of shipping volume, according to CAC President Tom Bellamore.

“We saw quite a bit of volume come off in the early part of the season” and continuing “strong through the summer, so we are expecting things to begin winding down by the end of August,” Bellamore told The Produce News.

“There will still be fruit into September, but probably just for select customers. I think the packers will work with several accounts to try to keep them in California fruit as long as they can, but I think it will become much more selective after the end of August.”

Unlike some seasons when “we have been faced with higher inventories of the smaller-sized fruit,” Bellamore said, the size profile of fruit in the market has been higher this year, and “the small fruit is performing very well price-wise.”

Although fruit from other producing areas has been in the market throughout the California season, California fruit has held a premium, Bellamore said.

“That is the case right now, and it has been the case for a good part of the season.” It appears that the market “is rewarding California production for its freshness and proximity to market,” he added.

Northwest Pear Bureau looks forward to a ‘great’ season

The Pear Bureau Northwest has released its 2014 season Northwest fresh pear crop estimate. “With reports of a crop of excellent quality from the Pacific Northwest growing regions of Wenatchee and Yakima, WA, and Mid-Columbia and Medford in Oregon, the total projection is showing approximately 18.7 million standard 44-pound box equivalents (or 411,400 tons) of pears for the fresh market,” the Pear Bureau said on June 5. “This estimate is 6 percent smaller than the five-year average, and 13 percent smaller than last year’s record crop.”

Growers will be meeting again in August, and there is an expectation that these preliminary numbers may be revised upward.

“The industry is looking forward to a great pear season, and the Pear Bureau team is ready to provide category analysis and data along with innovative merchandising ideas and materials to help retailers maximize their pear category sales,” President and Chief Executive Officer Kevin Moffitt told The Produce News. “Growing conditions have been ideal for the pear crop this season. There have been no significant frost or hail issues to date, and pollination weather was good. The industry is expecting a promotable crop of excellent quality this year.”

The harvest will begin in late July with Starkrimson and Bartlett, the first two varieties off the trees. Anjou, Red Anjou, Bosc, Comice, Concorde, Forelle and Seckel will be picked from late August through mid-October.

According to bureau statistics, the top three varieties in terms of production remain the same as in previous years. Green Anjou pears are anticipated to make up 53 percent this season. Bartlett will comprise 23 percent of overall volume, and Bosc pears 14 percent.

“The Pacific Northwest continues to provide the ideal growing conditions to yield pears of excellent quality,” said Cristie Mather, director of communications. “We are expecting a wide range of sizes for distribution to domestic and export markets. But right now it is too soon to predict what the peak sizes will be.”

The total Northwest summer/fall pear volume is anticipated to be approximately 4.6 million boxes, down 12 percent from 2013. A breakdown by variety, approximate volume and decrease from 2013 revealed the following: Green Bartlett/4.2 million boxes, down 12 percent; Red Bartlett and other summer-fall pears/94,800 boxes, down 4 percent; and Starkrimson/ 289,000 boxes, down 14 percent.

The total Northwest winter pear volume is anticipated to be approximately 14 million boxes, down 14 percent from 2013. A breakdown by variety, approximate volume and increase/decrease from 2013 is as follows: Anjou/10 million boxes, down 14 percent; Bosc/2.6 million boxes, down 17 percent; Red Anjou/1 million boxes, down 8 percent; Comice/224,000 boxes, down 18 percent; Seckel/42,600 boxes, down 7 percent; Concorde/62,800 boxes, up 1 percent; other red winter pears/8,000 boxes, down 52 percent; and other winter pear varieties/10,600 boxes, down 18 percent.

Organic fresh pear volumes are included in the above estimates. Total organic pear production for summer-fall pear volume is 365,575 boxes. A total of 505,200 boxes of winter pears are expected to be produced. According to the report, the following volumes of organic fruit are expected to be produced this season: Green Bartlett/311,150 boxes; Red Bartlett and other summer-fall pears/37,600 boxes; Starkrimson/16,825 boxes; Anjou/254,000 boxes; Bosc/198,000 boxes; Comice/1,780 boxes; Red Anjou/41,000 boxes; Concorde/10,120 boxes; and Seckel/300 boxes.

Mexican avocados account for two-thirds of all avocados sold in U.S. market

During the just-concluded 2013-14 season, the total volume of Mexican avocados in the U.S. market was 1.13 billion pounds — a little higher than originally estimated — and represented 65.5 percent of the aggregate avocado volume in the United Sates during that period, according to a written statement provided to The Produce News by Alvaro Luque, president of Avocados from Mexico Inc. That volume represents just over one-third of Mexico’s total avocado production, which is also consumed domestically and exported to other countries such as Japan and Canada.

Avocados from Mexico is a subsidiary of the Mexican Hass Avocado Importers Association and a joint venture between MHAIA and the Avocado Producers and Exporting Packers Association of Mexico.

The highest export month for Mexican avocados to the U.S. market during the past year was January 2014, “associated with the Super Bowl and guacamole consumption,” according to the statement. The lowest months were the summer months of July and August.

For the 2014 season, Avocados from Mexico projects a 15 percent increase in exports to the United States, or a total of about 1.3 billion pounds.

Currently being shipped was the new Flora Loca crop, a lighter bloom preceding the main crop. The Flora Loca this year is “normal in terms of volume and maturity,” according to the statement. “We have good levels of oil content, thanks to the control levels of dry matter as part of the Avocado Export Program to the U.S.”

The Aventajada and Normal crops, which follow the Loca, are expected to be “on time with good volume and with perfect quality fruit,” according to the statement.

This year, three municipalities in Mexico’s avocado growing region have received U.S. Department of Agriculture approval to export to the United States.

“Avocados From Mexico doesn’t project it’s volume or plans depending on other regions’ crops,” said Luque in the statement. “We completely respect all other avocado origins and applaud their effort of helping this category grow, but as a market leader with almost 70 percent market share, our focus is on expanding the market and competing with other categories and uses outside of the avocado industry, that’s where the real growth can come from.”

Mexico’s growers “are focused on the quality and taste of the fruit,” he said. “The current U.S. market can now sustain over 40 million pounds of avocados per week. No other country of origin can supply over a billion pounds annually to keep up with the consumption growth,” Luque continued. “Our key is to maintain the quality that the consumers have come to expect from Avocados from Mexico and make everyone aware of the benefits of a consistent and strong year-round leader.”

Avocados from Mexico Inc. was launched in July 2013 and “invested in a new communication campaign including the launch of our new brand character,” according to the statement. “This campaign was developed to reinforce our key messages of having a product that is ‘Always Fresh, Always Delicious and Always in Season.’ Media ran in three key phases tied up to big sport events and supported by national promotional programs.”

The organization ran “a bold promotional program with national partnerships with other top brands like Dos Equis, Ro-Tel, Cholula, Mission Foods and Clamato. We ended our year with our first Hispanic-focused promotion around soccer using Mexican soccer legends in our communication and store events,” the statement said.

“One of the most successful consumer programs has been our investment in digital,” the statement continued. “We’ve been working this past year setting the bases of our new platforms, and we’ve been investing time and resources to test and implement new technologies in digital media that will make our platforms,” including social media, “grow exponentially.”

For 2014-15, Avocados from Mexico “is launching a bold and assertive marketing plan,” the statement said. “The plan will be focused on a dual objective: Reinforce our leading brand’s value proposition in the mind of consumers and maintain a healthy, steady growth for the whole avocado category” in the United States.

The core focus of the plan is “to influence avocado consumers to eat more avocados more frequently. We are concentrating our efforts in increasing penetration and frequency with the avocado medium consumers and in building more avocado baskets with the heavy consumer.”

To accomplish this goal, the plan is divided into six strategic planks: brand building, category growth, Hispanic evolution, consumer engagement, trade excellence and foodservice expansion.

The brand campaign will run from Oct. 2014 to May 2015 and “will have a completely new strategic messaging based on deep consumer research that will reflect the authentic heritage of our brand,” the statement said. That campaign will involve national broadcast and cable TV, print, digital banners and social media, giving more than 1.6 billion impressions, up more than 50 percent from the 2013-14 campaign.

To help maintain and accelerate the growth of the avocado category in the United States, “we believe we need to concentrate our efforts in two key areas: consumer avocado education and product versatility in core users,” the statement continued.

Avocados from Mexico regards Hispanic consumers as “a key player in our category volume” and is therefore launching a many-faceted “Nueva Latina” program, the statement said. “The Hispanic consumer is becoming more acculturated,” according to the statement. “This Nueva Latina represents the biggest opportunity among the Hispanic consumer base, as we need to assure she continues to infuse avocados in the cuisine and pass that tradition along to her family.”