Grower-shippers optimistic about productive Southeast berry season

From The Packer | 23 February 2024

Overview of berries in the U.S. market, complemented by charts from Agronometrics. Original published on February 21, 2024.

Southeast berry season is underway or beginning soon in places like Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, and grower-shippers say they expect ample volume of good-quality strawberries, blueberries and blackberries during the late winter and early spring period.

Strawberries already are peaking in Florida, and Plant City-based Always Fresh Farms is eager for an early start on Florida blueberries, probably by the end of February, said Matthew Giddings, chief operating officer.

“We are seeing a nice crop set up in Georgia on blueberries and blackberries, but that will start in a few months,” he said. 

The company’s overall berry volume is expected to be up over last year.

“We are really seeing some great sizes in the newer varieties in strawberries and blueberries that not only look big, but have great flavor as well,” Giddings said.

Despite weather that has been “tricky and inconsistent,” the company expects good supplies moving forward.

all commodities volumes

Source: USDA Market News via Agronometrics.
(Agronometrics users can view this chart with live updates here)

Salinas, Calif.-based Naturipe Farms grows blueberries in Georgia, North Carolina and Florida and blackberries in Georgia and North Carolina, said Brian Bocock, vice president of product management.

Blueberries are available from February through June in Florida, April through July in Georgia and May through July in North Carolina. The company grows blackberries from May through July in Georgia and June through August in North Carolina.

“We’re expecting this season’s berries to be big, vibrant and deliciously sweet,” Bocock said. Picking should begin in early March, slightly later than usual.

“We’ve seen abnormally cold temperatures and heavy rain in parts of the Southeast, including in typically warm areas, such as Florida,” he said. “This might delay the start of the seasons a bit, but our berries bounce back well.”

Irvine, Calif.-based Gem-Pack Berries grows strawberries in the Plant City and Dover areas of Florida and in Fort Meade from mid-November to mid-April, said Kristen Hitchcock, chief financial officer for Parkesdale Farms Inc., a grower for Gem-Pack.

“The weather has been raining and cold, with less sunlight,” she said. “This makes the berries sweeter, but slower growing.”

It also increases the chance of diseases and pests, so workers are constantly having to clean the plants, which slows production.

Nonetheless, the berries “are coming along and look beautiful,” Hitchcock said.

Miami-based Crystal Valley Foods sources blackberries and blueberries from Florida and Georgia from March through June, said Katiana Valdes, marketing director.

“We are expecting Florida to start in mid-March and Georgia to start at the end of March or the beginning of April,” she said.

As of early February, the region had not experienced any major weather-related issues, and none were anticipated for at least the next few weeks, she said.

“We expect good quality and sizing this season” as long as good weather continues to hold, Valdes said. Volume could be above last year’s.

The company sells most of its berries to foodservice channels and some retail outlets.


Southeast berry growers continue to deal with the challenges of inflation.

“We have felt the major impact that inflation can have, from our growers all the way to our consumers,” said Naturipe’s Bocock.

“Throughout much of last year, we, like others in the industry, experienced increasing costs throughout every step of our growing, harvesting and packaging processes, and in turn have increased prices in order to sustain our growers.”

Prices of plastic and paper have come down a bit this season, Hitchcock of Parkesdale Farms said, but other costs have risen.

“The rising cost of labor has really made the margin on return very slim,” she said, adding that finding enough workers is another headache.

“Being able to get domestic employees is extremely hard, so we really rely on H-2A, and the cost to have H-2A is much more expensive,” she said.

Always Fresh had enough labor to harvest and pack its crop early in the season, Giddings said, “but we have yet to see the peaks.”

Naturipe also has experienced some increases in labor costs, Bocock said, but they haven’t slowed the company’s production.

While conventional berries may be plentiful in the Southeast, the same can’t be said for the organic category.

Giddings said growing organic berries “is a great challenge” for Always Fresh growers.

“Currently, we have been in a battle with Mother Nature to grow organic strawberries in Florida,” he said, adding that he expects organic volume to drop as more growers bow out of their organic programs.

Naturipe grows organic blueberries in Florida and Georgia, Bocock said.

“Like their conventional counterparts, organic volumes will likely be similar to last year’s volumes,” he said.

Gem-Pack does not now grow organic berries in the Southeast, but the company is preparing a new field for organics next year, Hitchcock said.

The News in Charts is a collection of stories from the industry complemented by charts from Agronometrics to help better tell their story.

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