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Westlake doubles volume as Fla. blueberry volume ramps up

Jack Cain, vice president of sales and marketing at Westlake Produce Co. in Winter Haven, FL, is optimistic about the upcoming Florida blueberry season, and with ample reason. The company has doubled its volume since last year and continues to make a commitment to supply a premium finished product by investing in the latest packing technology and food safety.

Winter freezes in Florida did not affect the blueberry crop, and in fact February and March brought perfect weather to ensure that this season’s offerings are on time and abundant.

“We’re excited about the upcoming season,” Mr. Cain told The Produce News Feb. 27. “This weather has moved things along for us nicely, and we are very optimistic about hitting our optimum marketing window. We’re going to see some small amounts of fruit being picked off our early varieties in late March. Our peak volume will start the middle April with promotable supplies available through mid-May. With the increased acreage and grower base, we see a significant total volume increase in our Florida blueberry production that will allow us to expand our market coverage.” He added, “Our continued growth will only come from the success of our growers’ sustainability no matter how large or small they are, and that is one of a marketer’s primary responsibilities.”

Westlake has been packing and marketing Florida blueberries for over 10 years, and has been a pioneer in introducing new packaging and promoting the importance of food safety and traceability. Its commitment to the berry category goes further than Florida by offering a year-round program of domestic and imported blueberries, all packed in its “Always Fresh” brand under the same stringent quality and food safety standards. Westlake also grows, packs and markets Florida and California strawberries, citrus, southeastern watermelons and cantaloupes, again all packed under its “Always Fresh” brand.

Not only has Westlake’s volume doubled over last season due to increased acreage, but “our own internal growing operations have significantly increased,” Mr. Cain said. “I think year-over-year production is going to be significantly increased just due to better growing conditions, the maturity of the plants and higher volume yields off the Highbush varieties like the Jewels and the Emeralds.”

In its quest to pack the best premium berries in its “Always Fresh” brand, Westlake recently added a new state-of-the-art packingline with optical color sorter, soft berry eliminator and automatic weigh filler to guarantee that the best quality and weights on all its packs will be exact. The line also will have a tape sealer to insure food safety and eliminate costly and messy spills at retail.

“We’re investing in the future and making a commitment to pack the very best blueberries,” Mr. Cain said. “We’re excited about our new packing facility and what it will allow us to do. By having three lines, our daily production capacity will be significantly increased and allows us more flexibility to pack six-ounce, pints and club packs simultaneously. This allows us to give our customers the pack they want, when they want it.”

All of Westlake’s blueberries carry a HarvestMark code for immediate traceability back to the farm. “That’s important, especially with blueberries because a lot of people eat them right out of the cup. They can go to that HarvestMark web site, put in the code and find out anything about the berries they are eating, right down to grower and the day they were picked,” Mr. Cain said. “With a brand name like ‘Always Fresh,’ the onus is on us to make sure we do a good job and give our customers premium berries.”