Florida strawberry growers expand market offerings

The Florida Strawberry Growers Association is launching an aggressive marketing campaign designed to educate consumers in Florida and along the East Coast of the U.S. about the quality and unique advantages of one of the state's fastest growing specialty crops. Florida is the No. 2 U.S. producer of strawberries, after California, and 80 percent of its annual crop is sold along the East Coast. The new campaign, funded by a $267,879 USDA specialty crop block grant generated via Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, will also leverage the well-established and highly successful FDACS "Fresh from Florida" advertising campaign created to promote the state's fresh produce. Because Florida strawberry shipments are now entering their peak four-month winter season, the timing of the efforts could not be better, said David Spivey, a member of the FSGA board and president of Plant City-based Spivey Farms.
"The growth of the Florida strawberry industry around the Plant City-Dover area in the last five years has been exponential," Spivey said, "especially as we've seen the decline in the citrus industry from greening and canker. So the land was readily available and more growers starting producing strawberries, which were a very logical progression for them." However, increased production has meant more supply to a market that is already seeing increased competition from Mexican growers. "That means we have to make sure the demand is there," said Spivey, who initiated and led FSGA's effort to get the USDA block grant. "And the only way to do that is through increased marketing efforts. That's where FSGA really put their foot on the gas pedal these last few years." Sue Harrell, FSGA's director of marketing, said that a major goal of the new campaign is to educate consumers about Florida strawberries. "For example, we want them to know that Florida strawberries are shipped ripe and that they travel a much shorter distance to get to market than Mexican strawberries do," she said. "So it's very important that consumers know where their strawberries are coming from and why Florida strawberries are better." Key activities this winter will include a billboard-based consumer advertising blitz along the East Coast to increase consumer awareness and market demand. The billboard campaign will be supplemented with Internet advertising, including the use of social media such as Facebook and Twitter. FSGA will also host a blog with educational information about Florida strawberries, including recipes and informational videos. The consumer marketing campaign will focus on Atlanta, Baltimore, Birmingham, Boston, Nashville, New York, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. In addition to the block grant-funded consumer advertising, there is also a new tie-in promotion with the Orlando-based Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill restaurant chain, which will feature Florida strawberries on the menus of its 65 East Coast restaurants from the second week of February through March. "They are starting to brand things on their menu as local Florida produce," Harrell said. Smokey Bones' vice president of culinary Jason R. Gronlund has created a new strawberry-based menu item as well as a specialty cocktail. Another emerging opportunity for the state's strawberry growers is the farm-to-school program developed by FDACS to sell more fresh local fruits and vegetables to local school districts and individual schools. "We're one of the five commodities they now will be showcasing in schools," Harrell said. Spivey said he and other growers hope that the new efforts will continue and evolve into the future, with additional block grant funding from USDA and FDACS. "This USDA grant is really in its infancy stage," he said. "In the long run, we don't really know yet what is going to happen with it." In an attempt to sustain funding for future years, FSGA has joined forces with the University of Florida to do research that will include consumer focus groups and surveys to find out how effective the block grant-funded marketing efforts have been. "And if we can show it's working, that will help our efforts to get funding in future years," Spivey said. And, in turn, he said, success will fuel the grower-funded FSGA cooperative marketing budget. "But the basic goal is just to increase the visibility of Florida strawberries among consumers," Spivey said. "And by doing that, we will also increase demand." For more information, visit FloridaStrawberry.com.