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Berry big business: Wish Farms

bp berry biz

That berries are—and look likely to remain—popular is an undisputed fact. Acreage is up, better tasting varieties are available, and growers are buoyant.

The little red, blue, and black fruits continue to gain favor with consumers as a top fresh produce category, so blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, and blackberries are an increasingly prevalent purchase at retail. They are also popular in foodservice and wholesalers sometimes can’t keep them in stock.

But while most marketers source volume domestically, primarily from California and Florida, rising labor and input costs are still piling on the pressure for growers. Can the solution be found with much-publicized robotic pickers or are there other viable alternatives?

A century of growth
At close to 100 years old, Plant City, FL-based Wish Farms BB #:111764 is one of the longest-established and largest berry businesses in one of the U.S.’s two key production regions for the category.

The family-owned company, which was started by current owner Gary Wishnatzki’s grandfather in 1922, is a year-round marketer of the four major berries: strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries.

In terms of output, the grower is typical of many operating within the sector: winter production in Florida is complemented by farms in Santa Maria and Salinas during the spring and summer, while additional volumes are sourced from Georgia, North Carolina, New Jersey, Michigan, and British Columbia, as well as Mexico, Peru, Chile, and Argentina. Some 600 acres in Florida and California respectively comprise Wish Farms’ own acreage.

Accounting for what Wishnatzki describes as a “pretty good percentage” of the Florida blueberry crop, Wish Farms supplies primarily major grocery chains in the United States and Canada. While it remains a successful business, its third-generation owner says difficulties and opportunities have much in common with the industry as a whole.

“There’s increased demand across the category in all berries,” Wishnatzki says, “but the biggest challenge growers are facing is around labor. That’s kept a cap on how many acres can be grown and harvested, especially in Northern California, which has been the most challenged on market prices over recent years.

“Acreage has been cut back and that’s probably been the toughest place for growers to make money on strawberries,” he adds, “especially in the Santa Maria and Salinas regions. The price structure has not kept pace with the cost of the inputs there.”

All about flavor
Despite the hurdles, Wishnatzki credits rising demand to new varieties being bred by the University of Florida and University of California, Davis.

“Demand for fresh berries has grown across the board and it’s all about flavor,” he says. “Consumers are looking for berries that are ripe and taste good, and berries that taste good are going to continue to spark demand.”

Warming to the theme, Wishnatzki argues that there needs to be a greater awareness on the part of both retailers and growers in general as to the importance of flavor and taste in generating consumer sales.

“I think there needs to be a little more tolerance for riper fruit,” he points out. “If you’re picking berries to satisfy an inspector, sometimes you’re not picking berries to satisfy a consumer. We have a saying, ‘if you don’t want to take it home to your family, don’t grow it.’

“Growers can make the mistake of chasing certain market windows and production on certain varieties that probably shouldn’t be planted. I would tell breeders the same thing: don’t release it if it’s not a berry you want to take home. That’s the one thing that can really kill demand.

“You may get a short-term win by hitting a market window and getting a good price for some fruit,” Wishnatzki concedes, “but if you don’t satisfy consumers and they don’t take it home and enjoy it, you’re really defeating your whole purpose because eventually you’re going to kill demand. These days, you’ve got your name on the package and consumers remember, good or bad. I would caution that marketers should keep that in mind.”

Marketing is a key part of Wish Farms’ business strategy going forward, according to Wishnatzki, who highlights the recent launch of an iOS and Android app, which links in with the company’s traceability system.

“The app has an augmented reality feature and when you scan one of our clamshells, ‘Misty the Garden Pixie’ comes to life,” he explains. “There’s also a variable QR code embedded in the label; it ties in with our traceability system that uses geographical mapping and goes back to the growers in the field. We’ve also got recipes, so it’s a whole consumer app.”

Anticipating further development in the berry category, the company is nearing completion of a new warehouse and headquarters in Plant City, which Wishnatzki says will accommodate Wish Farms’ expected growth.

This is a multi-part feature adapted from an article in the May/June 2020 issue of Produce Blueprints.