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    FRESH FOOD: Produce: Berries on top

    A big berry season should help soothe the hurt from citrus' winter stumble.

    Thank goodness for fresh berries. The pall of California's mid-January deep freeze has not dissuaded Golden State strawberry growers from eagerly gearing up for the official start of the big berry selling season, which will be in full bloom in just a few short weeks.

    As a category that gets bigger each year, a ripe spring berry harvest is music to retailers' ears after a disappointing Valentine's Day.

    "The first official 'strawberry holiday' was a bust this year, because of the freeze," said Dan Crowley, sales manager for Watsonville, Calif.-based Well-Pict Berries, interviewed during a walk-through of one of Well-Pict's numerous proprietary growing fields in mid-February.

    Crowley said while January's deep freeze obviously took a severe toll, "Our plants are rebounding well for the month of March and beyond, so we'll be in great shape for Easter and Mother's Day," which are springtime's two most important strawberry sales events.

    While there's no denying that spring and strawberries go hand in hand, the opportunity is no longer just for that season.

    "There's been a lot more interest and awareness of berries on a year-round basis among consumers, not only in berries, but in all fresh fruits and vegetables in general," said Crowley. "We're working with retailers to help them capitalize on that interest by encouraging them to make berries an everyday item, by playing up the different ways to cook, prepare, and enjoy them."

    Crowley says the berry patch schematic is the most effective means of producing a year-round lift in sales and profits -- not only with berries, but in overall produce department sales as well. The tactic enables retailers "to piggyback strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries on top of the other on a single display," affirms Crowley, "and has been working out wonderfully for many retailers. It's really all about the flavor."

    Organic growth

    Meeting growing consumer demand for organic berries, Naples, Fla.-based Naturipe Farm, LLC is poised to double its volume for organic berries this year, according to president John Shelford.

    "In 2006 we had a record year for organic berries, and in 2007 we will bring in additional organic acreage in strawberries from California, raspberries from Chile, blueberries from Georgia and Washington, and blackberries from California," explains Shelford.

    "Organic produce is staged for tremendous growth over the next five years, and we are preparing right now to meet that demand," he adds.

    Naturipe -- which offers a full line of organic strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and cranberries in a variety of sizes virtually year-round -- offers both conventional and organic berries from domestic and imported sources.

    Heavy organic buyers typically shop at markets such as Wild Oats and Whole Foods, notes Natureripe's sales manager, Jim Roberts. But the real opportunity for suppliers such as his company lies with the mainstream. Converting nonusers and infrequent purchasers of organic produce is one ticket to growth, and so is "getting those occasional users to realize that they can buy organic berries from their traditional supermarket," he notes. "That's why we've made the commitment to offer more organic berries to our customers."

    Naturipe projects its organic strawberry volume will increase by 200 percent this year. Its organic blueberries -- which Roberts says are the fastest-growing berries in the segment -- will increase by 50 percent, paced by raspberries and blackberries, whose volumes are pegged to increase by 20 percent and 10 percent, respectively.

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