PLANT CITY, Fla. — Demand keeps growing for Florida-grown strawberries.

The entire category has experienced strong demand and sales growth, grower-shippers say.

After remaining steady during the last four years, consumer strawberry purchases jumped 12 percentage points in 2009, and have become the fourth most popular purchased fruit, according to Fresh Trends research commissioned by Vance Research Services, a division of Vance Publishing Corp., Lincolnshire, Ill., publisher of The Packer.

As many as 82% of shoppers bought strawberries during the past year, the report stated.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest yearly figures, per-capita strawberry consumption increased from 4.1 pounds in 1997 to 6.44 pounds in 2007.

Cammy Hinton, office manager for Hinton Farms Produce Inc., remains optimistic about consumer interest in strawberries.

“I think the drive to eat healthy is certainly helping consumption,” she said.

“The demand has kept up very well with the increase in acreage we have seen over the last 10 or 15 years. We just hope it continues.”

Keith Mixon, president and chief executive officer of SunnyRidge Farm Inc., Winter Haven, said he expects acreage to remain in a growth mode as long as demand for strawberries and the berry category in general remains high.

“People are still bullish on strawberries — especially strawberries,” he said. “As good growers, we will plant until we exceed demand.

“Here we have been in tough economic times and strawberries and all berries continue to grow as a category in tonnage and dollars. When optimism returns, as we are in our fourth month of positive economic attitudes out there, good attitudes will hopefully continue to increase demand even faster than they have been increasing.”

Strawberries are becoming an important part of the produce department, said Gary Wishnatzki, president and chief executive officer of Wishnatzki Farms.

“Based on what we are seeing in the marketplace, consumers are continuing to think of strawberries as an every-time purchase,” he said.

“It’s almost like strawberries are the new banana. My wife says that. When consumers go to the grocery stores, not all of them, but a large segment of people is buying strawberries on a regular basis now like consumers buying bananas. Strawberries are becoming like a staple in America.”

Wishnatzki said expansion of demand follows much favorable media attention regarding strawberries’ antioxidant properties and other nutritional benefits.

Driscoll Strawberry Associates Inc., Watsonville, Calif., which has a Dover operation, remains optimistic on increasing strawberry demand.

“We are seeing consumer demand for berries increasing year-round,” said Douglas Ronan, vice president of marketing.

“Consumers are finding berries to be highly relevant to their interests in healthy eating. We are seeing an increasing number of consumers buying that category. Those that are buying them are buying them more often. That is driving a huge amount of growth for the category in total and for our brand.”

The way Doug Ranno, chief operating officer and managing partner with Colorful Harvest LLC, Salinas, Calif., sees it, strawberries have a lot to offer children.

“Strawberries are such a good, healthy and very kid-friendly product,” he said.

“Consumption and sales can only continue to increase. When the first lady is promoting salad bars in all schools and strawberries make a great fruit component of a kid healthy and kid-happy salad bar, things are looking good for the berry industry.”

According to the Fresh Trends research, 86% of shoppers with children reported buying strawberries during the last year.

Since Astin Strawberry Exchange LLC, Plant City, also sells squash, eggplant and hot peppers, Shawn Pollard, salesman, said strawberries are not difficult to sell.

“There’s nothing like strawberries. Everybody loves them,” he said.

“Florida strawberries have been well received. We are very blessed to market a product like this.”

Carole McKenzie, vice president of public affairs for Clear Springs Packing LLC, Bartow, said she thinks strawberries possess many strong qualities.

“If you can get something that’s good for you and as delicious as strawberries are, I think it’s a win-win situation,” she said.

“Though we’re relatively new in the strawberry deal, we see demand continuing to increase. Demand for strawberries is bigger this season. We are growing.”

Unlike most other Florida strawberry growers, who grow in the Plant City and Dover areas, Clear Springs grows from 300 acres in the Zolfo Springs area in Henry County, just south of the Hillsborough and Polk counties growing region.

Steve Machell, sales manager for Gulf Coast Produce Inc., Dover, said strawberries are benefiting from overall interest in increasing fruit and vegetable consumption.

He said he’s seeing more consumer demand.

“I like being in the food industry as strawberries will become a splurge item for families versus some other major purchase they may not be able to afford, but they can spend money on dessert,” Machell said.

“Strawberries are in an excellent position and are very affordable for consumers.”

The key to increasing sales is providing a tasty and useful product, said Chris Smith, sales manager for BBI Produce Inc., Dover.

“If you do a good job, deliver what people want, we see people wanting more berries because we deliver, the quality is good and they can depend on what we tell them about the deal,” he said.

“Having good eating experiences is also good. Everyone seems to want to grow more. It works as long as demand is up or if you’re doing a better job than someone else and creating more demand.”