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SunnyRidge: Florida blues a springboard to national success

Keith Mixon of Winter Haven, FL-based SunnyRidge Farm Inc. believes that it is a good time to be in the blueberry business in general and in the Florida blueberry business in particular.

He should know.

SunnyRidge built its reputation on blueberries and has become a major player in the overall berry category since its first plants went in the ground in 1993.

“I think it’s time to be in blueberries everywhere right now, but Florida certainly has a lot of growth,” Mr. Mixon said. “I am a believer. Blueberries are how we got here. Our health message is great, our ease of use is great, our taste is great and blueberries are a food people can trust.”

SunnyRidge is well known across all berry categories, but about 70 percent of revenues still come from its original crop, blueberries. The company now grows in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Mexico and sources as necessary to present a year-round program.

SunnyRidge got into the blueberry business “a little bit by chance,” Mr. Mixon said. Mixon family members were electrical engineers before they were berry growers and had a thriving business serving Florida’s phosphate and chemical industries. When phosphates hit the skids in the early 1990s, the Mixons looked around the family homestead and decided that a change of direction was in order. “We got rid of our cows and we asked, ‘What can we grow that is sort of a niche, in big demand, and kind of cutting edge,’“ he said.

The answer was blueberries. Initially the family thought, “Wow this is a great product, let’s put our toe in the water — we can just pick a couple of weeks a year and live the easy life,” Mr. Mixon recalled with a laugh. “We wanted to be gentlemen farmers.”

Reality — and success — soon came calling. The Mixons found that the blueberry business was “high value but high intensity, a business of details and hard work,” Mr. Mixon said. “In order to find high-quality people and afford high-quality facilities and be able to supply retailers and customers of any type with a quality experience, it takes a year-round business, and that’s what we recognized very quickly.” Before long, SunnyRidge was a year-round operation. Today, though father, Gerald, has retired, brothers Keith, Jerry and Greg serve respectively as president and chief executive officer; vice president and farm manager; and vice president and sales manager.

Ironically, “I don’t know that I had ever tasted a fresh blueberry before 1993,” Mr. Mixon said. “They’re not native to Florida, and they weren’t really a fresh item here.”

Now the Florida blueberry crop averages about 15 million pounds per year, and much of that moves under the “SunnyRidge” label.

The Florida season still lasts just six weeks, but with year-round global sourcing, “now there is no downtime at all,” Mr. Mixon said. “There’s always a peak somewhere in our blueberries — and blackberries, raspberries and strawberries. Blueberries are certainly our foundation. They’ve been the engine of who we are and are what we’re probably known for most with our customers. We grow a lot of blackberries and strawberries and raspberries, but in the end, we’re the blueberry people.”