Doug Ohlemeier, Eastern Editor
Doug Ohlemeier, Eastern Editor

As Florida strawberry growers lay their bedding and transplant their plants for their winter production, a new threat to their marketing window is emerging.

This threat, however, isn’t a pest or disease.

Some growers are viewing Mexico as a potential threat.

Ted Campbell, executive director of the Dover-based Florida Strawberry Growers Association, said Mexico added 10 million flats of production, which equates to retailers absorbing 1.5 million to 2 million flats a week during the season.

Campbell’s not upset at Mexico, though.

Instead, he wants to find ways to differentiate Florida production, and the answer to him is to better market Florida fruit and compete in the free marketplace on the basis of quality.

“We could be collateral damage and will be under the bus if we can’t efficiently market our fruit,” Campbell said.

“Instead of spending money on lawyers fighting each other legally, we would prefer to spend our money driving more consumption so that everyone’s product gets eaten. That’s the best of both worlds. We’re all working for the same endgame. What we want is the American market share. The best way to do that is to increase consumption.”

Retailer support is necessary to accomplish that.

A former retailer himself, Campbell says Florida’s strawberry industry is looking at connecting with retailers and telling them growers need help and support from them.

Campbell said breeders and growers are working hard to improve Florida’s berry flavor attributes, which he says will help encourage more retailers to place domestic product on their shelves.

For retailers to merchandise Florida fruit, growers must do their part by packing high-quality berries.

Campbell said Florida used to call itself the winter strawberry capital. However, he points to production gains in Mexico, Spain and even Southern California.

“Without a strong Florida marketing program, we will continue to lose market share,” Campbell said.

“We can spend a million dollars a year on research to improve production, but when supply exceeds demand, we all know what happens. If we can’t increase consumer demand for profitable levels of growing Florida berries, all that wonderful research improvement may just be helping someone else.”

Gary Wishnatzki, president and chief executive officer of Wish Farms, Plant City, Fla., agrees it’s a matter of producing a quality product.

“There’s always going to be competition, whether it’s Mexico or California,” Wishnatzki said.

“I think we need to get our message out to consumers when the Florida berries are available. Hopefully, consumers will help drive that demand for chain stores to purchase more Florida berries because most consumers would prefer the domestic product.”

As grower opinions are diverse, Campbell said he’s not sure what the industry plans to do to influence that change.

He’s looking for increased marketing but said it’s ultimately up to growers to decide how they want to invest their resources.

One thing’s for sure, they don’t want a long and protracted trade war that wouldn’t likely benefit either side.

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