PLANT CITY, Fla. — Florida’s blueberry industry is considering forming an exchange, a growers’ cooperative or another organization to better market and promote its berries.

At a Jan. 18 meeting, growers, packers and marketers heard from leading berry marketers about how an organization could benefit them and help send blueberries to the market in a more orderly fashion.

“We as growers need to take some initiative and start looking ahead,” said Bill Braswell, president of the Florida Blueberry Growers Association and president of Auburndale-based Polkdale Farms. “Every commodity in almost every state has some sort of exchange or commodity commission that markets and promotes their product. We have to ask the question: What are they doing that we are not?”

One need is for the industry to standardize packaging, said Braswell, who organized the meeting, which drew nearly 200 attendees.

Garry Bergstrom, business development director of produce and floral for Publix Super Markets Inc., Lakeland, said the grocer receives less negative feedback from blueberries sold in the 6-ounce clamshells.

“We prefer not to use a package like the 4.4-ounce,” Bergstrom said. “That little single-layer package with a dozen or so blueberries often priced at $3-4 just doesn’t make sense. Customers seem to have a problem with that.”

Keith Mixon, president and chief executive officer of SunnyRidge Farm Inc., Winter Haven, said the industry, which has grown from packing 3.5 million pounds in the mid-1990s to 14 million pounds in 2010, said the industry is poised for significant expansion.

“What I have been seeing the last two years is enormous growth for the Florida blueberry industry,” Mixon said. “I’m hearing rumors of 18 million pounds this year. That’s a 30% growth, which is pretty stunning. We should see that much growth for the next few years in Florida. Blueberries have been successful as a spring crop as we’re first on the market and we have had good prices. Life is good.”

While harvesting normally starts in mid- to late March, peak Florida volume usually begins in early and mid-April with volume decreasing by mid-May.

Brian Bocock, vice president of product management for Naturipe Farms LLC, Naples, said growers need to communicate production data to buyers better.

“Marketers need accurate forecasts,” he said. “I cannot emphasize that enough. One of the most important things is for marketing organizations to understand the velocity of the crop coming in.”

“If we can, that can work well with retailers and set up ads appropriately,” Bocock said. “When there’s bad information, we set up ads a week or two too early or too late. Everyone’s pocketbook is affected when we make assumptions based on poor information.”

Mark Greeff, vice president and general manager of the Eastern region for Watsonville, Calif.-based Driscoll Strawberry Associates Inc., said people are eating blueberries in record numbers.

“The blueberries need to be there ahead of us,” he said. “We have a unique opportunity as an industry. I see the future in Florida to be tremendous, but there will be some significant challenges.”

Florida production normally starts in south Florida near Zolfo Springs in mid-March, peaking a week earlier than central Florida’s berries in the Bartow, Lakeland, Winter Haven and Haines City area. That region usually starts in late March, a week before north Florida production in Gainesville commences.

Florida blueberry growers consider marketing group

Doug Ohlemeier

 Garry Bergstrom (from left), business development director of produce and floral for Publix Super Markets Inc., Lakeland, Fla., and Albert Gottuso, category manager of berries, talk with Keith Mixon, president and chief executive officer of SunnyRidge Farm Inc., Winter Haven, Fla., during a Jan. 18 growers meeting in Plant City, Fla.