(Oct. 20) ANAHEIM, Calif. — With the Oct. 15 purchase of Coastal Berry Co. LLC, Dole Fresh Vegetables Inc. could become one of the largest strawberry shippers in the country.

The purchase also could complicate the fledgling Sunkist Growers strawberry program, announced at the 2003 Produce Marketing Association convention. At that time, Sunkist expected to ship about 1 million cartons under the Sunkist brand.

Watsonville-based Coastal, under the direction of president John Gargiulo, had grown and packed for Sunkist ever since the Sherman Oaks-based citrus giant entered the strawberry deal last winter. Gargiulo left the company when the Dole purchase was finalized.

But as Sunkist asserts that it will continue to market strawberries, retailers can expect the new acquisition to make Dole a major producer of California strawberries.

“Between the two programs, in 2005 we should ship about 14 million cases,” said Eric Schwartz, president of the Salinas-based Dole Fresh Vegetables. “That puts us at probably No. 2 in the strawberry business.”

Financial details of the acquisition were not disclosed. At the time of the Sunkist-Coastal deal, Coastal was ranked the No. 3 strawberry shipper in the state, with about 2,000 acres of production. A host of other producers, such as Well Pict, Global Berry Farms and Sunrise Growers, each ship 10 million to 14 million cases. Driscoll Strawberry Associates is the top shipper in the state, with nearly 20 million cases.

The news emerged just in time for the Produce Marketing Association convention in Anaheim and just a couple of months before the start of the new California strawberry season. It was at last year’s Fresh Summit in Orlando that Jeff Gargiulo, Sunkist’s president and John Gargiulo’s brother, announced that Sunkist was entering the strawberry deal through an agreement with Coastal.

But Dole, which has been looking to diversify its product base, has been looking to expand its modest strawberry production for a couple of years, Schwartz said. But it hadn’t been able to secure the production ground it sought.

“What made Coastal interesting is that they control their own ground, do their own farming and have premium lands under long-term lease,” Schwartz said. “They’ve got prime ground in Oxnard and Watsonville,” two of the four main strawberry growing regions in California.

Although there will inevitably be some personnel shifts, customers initially shouldn’t see too much of a change, Schwartz said.

He did not elaborate on personnel changes.

“Right now, we’re rolling our program into Coastal’s, not the other way around,” Schwartz said.

However, at some point, the berries will be branded Dole, he said.

Dole’s purchase of Coastal was some of the biggest news to come out during this year’s convention, and it certainly had competing California strawberry producers taking notice. Although they were reticent to discuss the acquisition publicly, privately many said it was a big move that they would follow closely in the coming months.

Schwartz said the move made sense.

“Our long-term strategy is to diversify our products,” he said. “We’re not necessarily going to get bigger in iceberg, but we would like to do so in other products, and strawberries are a good example.”

California growers shipped about 114 million trays of strawberries in 2003. It looks like the state will exceed that by a few million this year, said Mary DeGroat, senior communications manager for the Watsonville-based California Strawberry Commission.