The Florida Department of Agriculture’s Fresh From Florida marketing group has targeted a number of markets worldwide for many years, including the UK. With progress already made in the UK with sweetcorn, all eyes are now on the potential for Florida sweet potatoes. At the same, the organisation is anticipating a recovery for the state’s grapefruit exports within the next three years as it predicts a breakthrough in the fight against citrus greening. Produce Business UK finds out what the UK can expect from Florida
As a marketing organisation, Fresh From Florida has helped promote Florida fruits and vegetables in the UK since 2005, largely focusing on the November-May window when around 90% of fresh produce from the Sunshine State head to Europe.
The group works with over 300 different commodities, according to Dan Sleep, Florida Department of Agriculture’s marketing division’s Chief at the Bureau of Strategic Development, who says Florida is in an optimal position to supply at a global level.
In fact, almost half of Florida’s annual production of fruits and vegetables – more than US$4 billion (£2.6bn) worth – is exported around the world to 160 countries.
Traditionally, grapefruit has been a major export to the UK, but although shipments remain significant, Fresh From Florida has been working to introduce other products to the market, notably sweetcorn, which now accounts for between US$4-5m (£2.6m-3.3m) worth of sales in the country.
“Sweetcorn was not really a product that was being consumed in volume in the UK when we started out – it was very difficult,” says Sleep. “We worked with Waitrose and used its chef kitchens, and even brought our chef over for several weeks at one point in the campaign and shared recipes, and we saw volumes go up.”
Sleep says the marketing body’s strategy is to study different products to determine which would have the strongest prospect of “fitting cleanly” into the UK market.
Despite this, he admits that sometimes he is still taken by surprise by what products prove to be a hit with British retailers and consumers, citing the growing success of sweet potatoes with UK shoppers as an example.
Sweet potato promise
On a visit to a British Whole Foods Market store in July this year, Sleep was taken aback to see a prominent display of sweet potatoes; a product he believed had little potential in the market.
“I didn’t really see them at all in Europe and here’s Whole Foods with a 20-case display,” he recalls. “I think I was in Whole Foods for less than 30 minutes and I counted about six different grocery carts as they were coming out with sweet potatoes in them, so I’m thinkin, okay, they’re moving that product, it’s not out there rotting.”
What made the find so significant was that Sleep’s discovery coincided with an enormous increase in sweet potato production in Florida, and he believes the state’s growers could capitalise on the burgeoning demand for the product in the UK.
In 2010, Florida’s sweet potato production was worth an estimated US$3.9 million (£2.6m). By 2014, this had risen to US$53.3m (£35m). “This is phenomenal growth and, of course, once we saw sweet potatoes in Whole Foods and also in Scandinavia, we realised this is something that we’ve got to discuss with category buyers,” says Sleep.
“We’ve only begun to understand what’s going on – we have 300 commodities and that one [sweet potatoes] was not a big one three or four years’ ago,” he adds.
Studying UK potential
Sleep says a key part of Fresh From Florida’s role is to study export markets and look at what might be selling in anticipation for an opportunity – even an unexpected one – arising. “Often our missions will include conducting competitive scouting missions to determine whether there is an opportunity for a Florida product to enter the market,” he explains. “You have to look and learn and see if it’s actually selling because you never know where a market is going to expand or begin to manifest an opportunity.”
“Of course, a retailer will do that as well, and I’m not going to have an opportunity to market a product that’s not going to do well, so we do a lot of research like that,” adds Sleep.
Such research is vital, he says, particularly in the case of sweet potatoes where only trace amounts had shown up before in export figures.
“You have to start talking, doing retail analysis, and going in and seeing what’s in those stores right now,” Sleeps explains.
Typically visiting during the winter months, researchers will look at product sources, quality and pricing, and see where Florida-grown products can match or beat other sources in those aspects and whether they have alternatives that would be acceptable for the UK market.
Florida’s positive image
Of course, Florida is far better-known in the UK as a holiday destination, and Sleep says Fresh From Florida has been seeking to capitalise on the state’s positive image among British consumers.
“I think we’re still the number one tourist destination for Brits, so there’s a very good feeling that works for us in marketing as far as Florida not only being a place to vacation, but where you can buy products from as well, so there’s a lot of positives for us,” he says.
As an organisation, Fresh From Florida has worked closely with UK retailer Waitrose for the last 10 years to introduce new products – and Florida as a new product source – to the UK market. In the case of sweetcorn, the marketer collaborated for close to five years with the retailer, but, although successful, Sleep says fluctuations in funding brought that particular promotion to a close.
Despite this, he says Fresh From Florida has continued to fund promotional campaigns for a range of other products, notably grapefruit, not just in the UK, but across Europe.
However, Sleep emphasises that the UK remains an important market for Florida, citing the significance of this country’s “outstanding” grocery retail sector.
“There’s no handling or quality control issues once the product lands in the UK – sometimes in different markets around the world that can be an issue, but that’s not one we really have to have any concerns with in the UK because the standard is so high,” he says.
Citrus greening solution?
Grapefruit exports have been the mainstay of Florida’s fresh produce exports to the UK for decades, but recent years have seen shipments slump as a result of an epidemic of citrus greening in the state’s citrus groves.
Sleep admits Florida’s grapefruit export volumes have steadily shrunk over recent years, from around 27 million cartons in 2007 down to 16m in 2014.
“There is greening out there, so the crop has been shrinking over the last few years, but it’s still a fairly large crop – you’re looking at many, many millions of cartons of grapefruit still going out and being harvested each year,” he says.
Headed by Florida’s Secretary of Agriculture, Adam Putnam, efforts are being made to tackle the problem, specifically by investing in research in the state’s universities.
In fact, Sleep says scientists are beginning to get “pretty close” to a breakthrough against greening; predicting a solution could be achieved within as little as three years.
“We’re already starting to see some results for some of the testing that’s going on that looks positive, so I’m going to go out on a limb here and say I think the industry will begin to turn around and the crop will expand here in probably three years’ time,” he forecasts.
“Once we actually have a remedy, new cultivars will start to be planted and then it usually takes about three years for those to start producing, so somewhere in the next three to five years, we’ll see that crop begin to recover and expand.”
Sleep argues that there remains considerable potential for Florida in the grapefruit market. Although he concedes that production in the state has slumped across the whole citrus category, from 250m cartons of fruit to around 120m, he believes there is room for growth and recovery in sales.
“Almost US$800m [£500m] in sales are being lost in that industry – it’s taking a beating, but it’s surviving and it’s not going to go away,” argues Sleep. “I don’t see them throwing in the towel any time soon. So, I’m very positive as far as that is concerned.”
“It’ll be interesting to see what happens and how quickly that begins to recover because the demand is out there.”
As an example, Sleep cites the decline in demand in Japan, which to a large extent has been balanced out by a sharp increase in sales in nearby South Korea.
“We had a decline in demand in Japan over the last half a dozen years or so – they used to bring in about 10m cartons a year – as that declined, we found another market just across the water in South Korea and we began to market the product there,” he says.
From sales that were relatively flat, at around 70,000 cartons in 2007, Fresh From Florida gradually helped boost the market share for Florida grapefruit in South Korea through concerted marketing and promotions, while also bringing in some of the volumes that were not being sold in Japan.
Florida now ships some 500,000 cartons of grapefruit annually to South Korea and Sleep believes there is strong potential to “very easily” reach 1m cartons in the near future.
“There is demand out there – it’s just a matter of managing your supply and getting it into wherever you want,” he says.
Despite this, Florida still exports 1.2m cartons of grapefruit to Japan each year, as well as 750,000 cartons to Canada and 53,000 cartons to the UK. In the latter case, Sleep is confident the current export figure could also be increased with some targeted marketing.
Looking ahead, Fresh From Florida will be hosting a delegation of category buyers during October and a new grapefruit promotional drive may well be in the pipeline for early next year.
“We’re still in discussions with buyers and that’s something that may happen soon – the plan is we’re going to stay with the grapefruit and we’re going to see if we can expand it,” Sleep concludes.