Suppliers of winter produce from the Caribbean find that giving a helping hand can greatly boost production quality. Continued investment, improved infrastructure and diversification also are helping to make the islands a reliable source of ethnic tropicals.

Maria Gutierrez, sales manager for Fresh King Inc., Homestead, Fla., realized her company needed to lend a hand when customer comments were telling her that Dominican fruit was not packed as well as the domestically grown produce under the Homestead “Redlands 1862” label.

Fresh King developed the King Avocado label to assure customers that the quality of off-shore crop is just as good as the those packed in the U.S.

“They didn’t get as good of a pack so we decided to send some of our people down there to show them how to pack a better avocado,” she said.

Staff members met with grower-packers to show them what sizes to send in each container depending on market conditions and what varieties were best for the U.S. They also reviewed postharvest procedures that were not as familiar in the Dominican Republic as in the U.S.

Fresh King helped growers to develop schedules for each variety and improve pre-cooling protocol, and they discussed what retailers were looking for.

“Retailers are looking for a fruit that is a good eating piece of fruit and that has a long shelf life,” she said. “They are taking the best varieties and packing it into this new King Avocado label so that we assure the customers that they are getting the best possible fruit.”

Several suppliers cited a large avocado deal on its way from the Dominican Republic in addition to new produce that will be coming from the island.

Amador Sanchez, salesman at Fresh King Inc., Homestead, Fla., said there are a lot of avocados coming out of the Dominican Republic in what looks to be a big season.

“I know for sure they are going to have a great year for avocados,” he said. “Big volume (and) no storm this year, so it’s been perfect weather.”

Sanchez said most will likely be shipped to Florida and New York, with some also going to Philadelphia.

Eddie Caram, director of operations at New Limeco LLC, Princeton, Fla., said in addition to avocados New Limeco will also bring in a mix container of root vegetables from the Dominican Republic that includes malanga blanca, malanga coco and bread fruit.

In addition to avocados, Gutierrez said Fresh King also imports habañero peppers and coconuts from the island.

“For this holiday season, we came up with some recipes,” she said. “Usually in the holidays, sale in the coconuts go up because fruit is used for a lot of desserts.”

Recipes are included on small brochures that are attached to the coconuts as a holiday decoration.

With stable pricing and new advertising, Fresh King is counting on movement of 30% more produce this winter.

Gutierrez also said the company will start importing orange, red, green and yellow habañero peppers from the Dominican Republic. Heavy rains in November delayed planting, but Gutierrez said the season is expected to start in late December.

“They have the right conditions (in the Dominican Republic) and they are very close to Miami,” she said. “I think people are looking to more opportunities from the Dominican Republic.”

Mangoes, yams and calabaza appear to be the primary import crops from Haiti this year, but suppliers say the country is trying to expand their market offerings.

Caram said New Limeco will import francine mangoes in March. Unlike past years, he said, the crop and export conditions seem to be stable this year.

Jessie Capote, vice president of operations at J&C Enterprises, Miami, said J&C also will be importing Haitian mangoes from a supplier helping the company import new products.

Leighton said his calabaza program will be down this year and delayed because of weather damage in main growing areas.

Jamaica’s products are growing say suppliers. Prices have stabilized during the winter months.

“Jamaica again has had good, normal activity,” said Leighton, who highlighted the effect of Jamaican Olympian Usain Bolt’s praise for Jamaican yellow yams. “Bolt came from yam country and credits the yellow yam to his stamina. It may be still in the ethnic community, but people have picked up on that.”

Leighton also praised his yam shipper for a beautiful job of palletizing the product and providing complete traceback to the farm.

“He has a remarkably good pack of yellow yams, and people respond to that sharpness,” he noted.”

Capote also said the company would be importing Jamaican yams, and Sanchez said Fresh King will import Ugli fruit from Jamaica this year.