(Oct. 27, 5:50 p.m.) WINTER HAVEN, Fla. — Adding more color to its palette of blues and blacks, SunnyRidge Farm Inc. is jumping into growing strawberries.

The grower-shipper of blueberries, blackberries and raspberries has entered the strawberry deal by buying land, planting berries and investing in grower operations with acreage near Plant City.

SunnyRidge expects to ship 1 million to 1.5 million flats of strawberries from up to 450 acres during its first year of production.

Owned by Greg, Jerry and Keith Mixon, SunnyRidge plans for double-digit growth during the next three to four years as its strawberry program accelerates, said Jerry D’Amore, business development manager.

“This expansion is a natural evolution of who they are,” D’Amore said. “I am particularly proud of the manner they have decided to enter this community. They have put money in the dirt and into the community.”

SunnyRidge in early October formally dedicated its strawberry growing operations at a field northwest of Dover near Thonotosassa. More than 80 people were in attendance, including representatives from Supervalu Inc., Eden Prairie, Minn., and Sweetbay Supermarkets, Tampa.

“I see this as a continuation of our company’s vision that my father and two brothers have had since the beginning of SunnyRidge,” said Greg Mixon, vice president and sales manager. “As history shows, we are not simply here to put a SunnyRidge sticker on a clamshell and call them SunnyRidge Farms strawberries. We are here to make a difference in strawberries and the strawberry industry.”

The production includes 125 new SunnyRidge-owned acres formerly used for citrus production, 125 SunnyRidge-financed acres and more than 200 contracted acres with other growers.

The company plans to cool its berries at a facility near Dover.

“If we are true to our mission of reliability and quality, nothing assures that more (than us) being part of it,” Keith Mixon, president and chief executive officer, said.

Florida’s strawberry deal normally starts in late November and early December with promotable volume building by Christmas, when the state’s window begins. Though production can run into the middle of April, shipments begin to lessen in mid-March.

Entering its 17th year of operations, SunnyRidge has in recent years been on a path of expansion that stretches from Canada to South America.

The company, which grows and markets blueberries, blackberries and raspberries from throughout North America, Central America and South America, packed 60 million pounds of berries in 2007-08, with blueberries accounting for two-thirds of its volume.

This spring, the company shipped 3 million pounds of the state’s 7.8 million pounds.

Florida strawberry growers are expected to have planted 8,500 acres this season, up from last season’s 8,000 acres, according to the Florida Strawberry Growers Association, Dover.

Last season, Florida strawberry growers shipped an estimated more than 20 million flats of strawberries.

SunnyRidge Farm enters Florida strawberry deal
Jerry D’Amore (from left), business development manager of SunnyRidge Farm Inc., Winter Haven, Fla., Keith Mixon, president and chief executive officer, and Todd Alexander, strawberry farm manager, examine some newly transplanted strawberries north of Dover, Fla., in early October. Long a big player in blueberries, SunnyRidge is entering the strawberry growing and shipping deal. The family-run company expects to ship up to 1.5 million flats of strawberries from 450 acres during its first season.