(April 1, 9:45 a.m.) BARTOW, Fla. — Clear Springs Packing LLC is expanding its Florida blueberry acreage, moving into other U.S. production areas and is starting to ship other commodities.

The grower-shipper, which began growing blueberries in central Florida on former phosphate mining land in 2006, plans to use its Winter Haven-area warehouse to consolidate and repack imported produce.

In late March, the company was planting 100 acres, adding to its current 220 acres, and with production from other growers, it plans to market blueberries from 500 acres next season, said Kenny Nova, general manager.

This fall, Clear Springs also plans to plant 80 acres of strawberries and 40 acres of grape tomatoes. The company also plans to sell Mexican blackberries, Florida and Georgia watermelon and hard squash.

“We are a company that will be on the radar here very shortly,” Nova said. “My vision is to make this a produce operation, not just a berry operation. We plan to be a 12-month supplier. We really see some big things on the horizon, like bringing in Mexican products.”

U.S. berry growth

In late March, the company announced a partnership with Boerne, Texas-based Progreso Produce Ltd., expanding Clear Springs’ blueberry program to year-round.

Mississippi will also be a source of blueberries, Nova said.

Progreso sources blueberries from the Southeastern U.S. and Michigan and is working on sources in South America for a year-round deal. The berries will be packed under Clear Springs label and Progreso has sales staff at Clear Springs’ office. The deal also helps Progreso Produce with its year-round sourcing by providing a base for Florida-grown watermelons, strawberries and cantaloupe.

While southeast Mississippi should provide Clear Springs product mid-May to July, Nova said the company is working on developing grower relationships in Georgia, the principal East Coast blueberry production region that follows Florida’s spring deal which ends in May, as well as in North Carolina, British Columbia and Chile.

Nova said he expected Clear Springs to fill most supply gaps by the end of May.

To implement anticipated rise in volume — and sales — the company hired a produce procurement and sales veteran who formerly worked for Eden Prairie, Minn.-based Supervalu Inc.

Kyle Gashaw, who worked more than two decades in sales and procurement with for Supervalu’s Lakeland office, joined Clear Springs in late February as salesman and executive director of community relations. Gashaw has also worked in farm production for the Haines City Citrus Growers Association,

“This place is probably one of the best-kept secrets in Florida,” Gashaw said. “The farms and facilities are phenomenal.”

Clear Springs has lessened its involvement with California Giant Inc., Watsonville, Calif., which it partnered with last year to pack Florida blueberries under California Giant’s label. The two companies plan to continue working together, but have ended their formal co-packing arrangement, said Christina Monnin, a Clear Springs saleswoman who joined the operation last year.

Imports & consolidation

In July, Clear Springs plans to begin receiving produce imports from the Port of Tampa and begin consolidating and repacking other produce through its 103,000 square foot cold storage capacity, Nova said. The company has been providing cold storage services, he said.

This season, Clear Springs plans to ship more than 1 million pounds of Florida blueberries, up from 720,000 last season. It expects to ship 10 million pounds from all of its growing regions during its first year of national sales, Nova said.

Clear Springs adds commodities, sets growth plan
Kenny Nova, general manager of Clear Springs Packing LLC, Bartow, Fla., inspects blueberries in late March. Clear Springs is expanding its Florida blueberry acreage, moving into selling other U.S. berry production and planting and shipping additional commodities such as strawberries, grape tomatoes, melons and squash.

Doug Ohlemeier