From avocados and mangoes to starfruit and dragon fruit, Florida tropical fruits add exotic hues and flavors to fresh produce sections nationwide.
Grown in Florida since at least 1833, avocados are mainly grown in Miami-Dade County today. Florida avocado varieties prefer wet weather, and there’s a nutritional bonus: up to half the fat and about two-thirds fewer calories than their dryer-climate cousins.
“Florida avocados are simply a different branch of the avocado family tree,” says Mary Ostlund, marketing director at Brooks Tropicals LLC, which ships Florida avocados nationwide from June to January.
The avocado harvest is holding, around 7,000 acres, despite a threat from laurel wilt fungus. A non- native species, the red ambrosia beetle, spreads the disease.
“With no known predators for the beetle, we as an industry have struggled to find answers,” Ostlund says. The University of Florida and Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services have helped avocado growers “come a long way in curtailing the problem,” she adds.
Other tropical acreages, like guava and mango, are on the rise.
Brooks Tropicals also ships Florida-grown dragon fruit, passion fruit, starfruit and mamey sapote. South Florida firms ship mamey nationally. The fruit has a texture that is both creamy and sweet, and the flavor is a combination of sweet potato and pumpkin with notes of almond, chocolate, honey and vanilla.
“Mamey is highly sought after by the Mexican, Cuban and Puerto Rican demographic, and enjoyed as a dessert,” says Jessie Capote of J&C Tropicals. Capote’s father founded the company after emigrating from Cuba in the 1960s.
Starfruit, passion fruit and dragon fruit are also gaining appeal. Dragon fruit is the “new kid on the block,” when it comes to tropicals, Capote says. He estimates a 25 percent increase in dragon fruit shipments for 2016. The fruit, which is native to Asia, is “crossing over ethnic boundaries.”
“It’s a super food, now highly sought for juices, smoothies and fruit salads,” he says.
There are many challenges to meeting increased consumer demand. An oriental fruit fly outbreak, which started in Miami-Dade County during September 2015, resulted in some lost tropical fruit income. According to Capote, the fruit fly isn’t native to Florida.
Florida residents and visitors can help protect the tropical fruit industry by following state and federal guidelines designed to protect crops.
“South Florida’s tropical fruit industry is an enormous economic engine for the state,” Capote says, noting the industry supports equipment suppliers, transportation and logistics firms, and food marketers, among others.
Mango is the second most commonly grown tropical fruit in Florida, with more than 2,500 acres in 2012.
“There are more than 1,000 varieties of mango, and they all taste different,” says Kim Erickson of Erickson Farm in Canal Point.
Erickson and her sister, Krista, are the fourth generation to grow tropicals. With their father, Dale, they raise 50 mango varieties on 40 acres. They specialize in newer mango varieties that are too fragile to import.
“We don’t get as much production per tree as some older commercial varieties, but we focus on specialty markets,” Erickson says.
Besides the family, Erickson Farm employs a staff of five to seven year round and up to 20 during mango harvest.
“Everything is hand picked. You’re dealing with fruit that is uniquely shaped and at different maturities,” Erickson says.
Hurricanes and freezes are the major weather challenges for tropical fruit. Erickson says their mango trees took 10 years to return to normal production levels after three direct hits from hurricanes in 2004 and 2005.
Still, South Florida’s tropical fruit industry is rising up to the challenges Mother Nature delivers, even as the nation’s consumer palate diversifies to more tropical tastes.
“Florida delivers the nation’s produce aisle during the winter season. For tropicals, it’s almost year round,” Ostlund says.