Consumers continue to crave more berries – one of nature’s tastiest and most convenient snacks. Florida berry farms are meeting that increased demand as both the primary source of U.S. winter strawberries and the earliest U.S. shipper of fresh blueberries.
The winter of 2014-15 provided the perfect growing season for Florida strawberry fields, concentrated around Plant City. “It was an amazing crop year for flavor,” says Sue Harrell, director of marketing, Florida Strawberry Growers Association. “We had a whole season of cool nights and warm days – what strawberries need for perfect flavor and aroma.”
The favorable growing season yielded 30 million flats – 600 million pints – in 2014-15. That was a 30 percent increase in volume from the previous year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Consumers want strawberries that smell great in the grocery store and taste sweet at home. New varieties, with earlier and sweeter fruit, help increase Florida’s strawberry volumes. “We want that first package you buy in the season to be really, really good,” says Harrell.
Florida’s strawberry harvest starts in November, around Thanksgiving. Berries shipped in December, especially along the East Coast, meet holiday demand and bring growers higher prices. Florida keeps shipping its winter strawberry crop through March. “We’re always trying to produce the perfect berry, using different varieties that taste well all through the season,” says Harrell.
To help hook strawberry customers early in the season, University of Florida researchers are fine-tuning Sweet Sensation FL127, an early-maturing variety with great aroma and taste. “Our taste tests up and down the East Coast show consumers really like this variety,” says Harrell. “So our farmers are giving their insight to researchers about how this new variety grows in different field conditions.”
Blueberry Demand Grows
Florida’s climate also helps farmers capture the early-season fresh blueberry market. “Florida growers have a blueberry market window in March and April,” says Bill Braswell, Florida Blueberry Growers Association immediate past president.
Consumers want more fresh blueberries year-round, says Braswell. “Blueberry consumption has been growing like crazy,” he says. “They’re so easy to eat, and we are growing berries that give the little crunch that consumers tell us they like.”
Fresh blueberry consumption per person more than doubled between 2007 and 2012, from 0.5 to 1.2 pounds, according to the Economic Research Service. Florida farms, which harvested 2,376 acres of blueberries in 2007, harvested more than 4,300 acres in 2014, according to the USDA.
To deliver the “crunch” consumers crave, researchers at the University of Florida have selected and improved blueberry varieties for Florida’s climate. Three new varieties proving popular with Florida blueberry farmers are Sweetcrisp, Kestrel and Meadowlark. “I’d put these up against any blueberry in the world,” says Braswell.
Besides their sweet taste, berries appeal to consumers as a healthy food and snack. Blueberries have high levels of antioxidants, such as anthocyanins – the compounds that color blueberries blue. Strawberries, a good source of vitamin C, are also rich in antioxidants. Antioxidants may improve heart health with positive effects on total cholesterol, LDL and triglycerides. Some antioxidants could provide positive benefits for aging, according to the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council.
Fresh strawberry consumption has also grown in the United States, from 7 pounds in 2003 to about 9.5 pounds today. But not all strawberries are created equal, says Harrell. Consumer research, funded by the Strawberry Growers Association, shows consumers seek out strawberries labeled “Fresh From Florida.”