To counter increased Mexican competition, the Dover-based Florida Strawberry Growers Association is banking on growing varieties with higher flavor, says Kenneth Parker, executive director.
To counter increased Mexican competition, the Dover-based Florida Strawberry Growers Association is banking on growing varieties with higher flavor, says Kenneth Parker, executive director.

DOVER, Fla. — Facing stiffer competition, Florida strawberry growers are working to provide a product that can compete against expanding Mexican production that hits during Florida’s winter window.

The larger Mexican marketplace presence has negatively affected demand, grower-shippers report.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Mexico strawberry production has increased from 229,000 tons in 2011 to 360,000 tons in 2012 and exports have increased from 35,000 tons in 2000 to 77,000 tons in 2011, the latest years available.

The issue is bringing much concern to Florida’s growers, said Cammy Hinton, office manager for Plant City-based Hinton Farms Produce Inc.

“The improvements in trucking continue to make it easier for them to get product into the country that’s of a quality that’s acceptable to buyers,” she said. “It’s going to be continual competition for us. There’s always a concern about your window and who else can produce in your window. It’s increasingly been a factor at certain times in the season.”

Something buyers should consider is the environmental and economic affect of trucking berries from Mexico to East Coast distribution facilities, said Shawn Pollard, salesman for Astin Strawberry Exchange LLC.

“We are considerably closer to the end-user and there’s a lot more fuel consumed in transporting the berries to Nogales (Arizona) and then to the East Coast, which has a greater environmental impact,” he said. “I think its best this industry focus on what we can control and worry about what we can do and what we have to offer. A lot of people have loyalty to domestic product.”

Salinas, Calif.-based Colorful Harvest LLC bets on all the major North American growing regions and grows and ships from California, Florida and Mexico.

Because more handlers are working in Mexico, that could be better for everyone because it should introduce more customers into that pile, said Jeremy Burris, vice president of sales and sourcing for Colorful Harvest’s Florida division.

“Mexico has similar costs to us with labor only less, but that’s catching up,” he said. “Mexico will eventually experience the ramifications of the real strawberry market and demand. Mexico has brought on more volume and has been somewhat challenging to Florida growers. My hopes are as the supply increases out of Mexico, demand in the U.S. will continue to grow with it.”

Watsonville, Calif.-based Well-Pict Inc., grows in California and Florida.

“We had a choice to grow in Florida or central Mexico, and we chose Florida,” said Dan Crowley, vice president of sales. “Mexico is too big a growing area. We like to keep our fruit stateside for all the patriotic reasons. For us, the domestic product is a much better product to offer our customers.”

Florida growers must supply buyers a strong product, said Chris Smith, sales manager for BBI Produce Inc., Dover.

“Their choice is us if we do a good job and are quality is good and if they get the right information from us on advertisements,” he said. “If it’s a decent price, we are the choice and they would rather be here, I do believe.”

To counter increased Mexican competition, the Dover-based Florida Strawberry Growers Association is banking on growing varieties with higher flavor, said Kenneth Parker, executive director.

“Our breeding program is really concentrating on flavor,” he said. “As any competitive advantage is short lived and is a moving target, we are pushing our plant breeders and raising the bar higher. Every year we hope to have a better berry available to us and not be available to everyone else for a while. Florida growers are investing heavily into the breeding program through their research and education foundation.”

Gary Wishnatzki, president and chief executive officer of Plant City-based Wish Farms, said the two growing regions don’t need an antagonistic relationship.

“As demand continues to grow for berries, I’ve always been of the belief that Florida growers can coexist during that time of the year,” he said. “I don’t think it has to be an us vs. them situation.”