Port Manatee

Pilot program opens Port Manatee for cool fruit, berries

Port fruit business gets true cold comfort

PORT MANATEE -- South American fruits once off-limits to Florida ports could begin shipping into Port Manatee this fall under a pilot program that uses cold temperatures to kill off exotic pests.

The port is part of the second round of the pilot, which the United States Department of Agriculture approved in 2013 at Port Miami and Port Everglades county ports. It marks the first time Florida ports have been able to import certain fruits that have been treated for pests with cold temperatures only.

For Port Manatee, entry into the program could translate into an 18-month head start on a new line of business. Some local berry producers might also benefit from getting a new line of supply.

"This creates opportunities at Port Manatee," said Carlos Buqueras, the port's executive director. "We know exactly who the key exporters are of those commodities."

Starting Oct. 1, Port Manatee can begin accepting shipments of grapes, blueberries and citrus products from Peru and Uruguay, as well as blueberries, apples and pears from Argentina. Ships carrying the fruit expose it to near-freezing temperatures for about two weeks before offloading. Cold treatment is a USDA protocol for killing off fruit flies.

Other methods for killing pests on shipped foreign produce include spraying them with pesticides, radiation, heat treatment and using various gasses.

The pilot program is expected to lead to permitted importation of cold-treated produce at all of Florida's ports in a little over a year, Buqueras said.

Previously, cold-treated crops were approved for shipment only to U.S. ports located above the 39th parallel. Philadelphia has been the primary receiving port for this produce. After being offloaded there, cold-processed fruit is shipped via truck to markets including Florida. That can delay the arrival of produce at market by three to five days.

Port Manatee, which is seeking more import business to fill current and planned refrigerated warehouses, received word last week that it would be part of the second phase of the pilot program. Other new participants include JaxPort in Jacksonville and Port Tampa.

One local blueberry producer, Plant City-based Wish Farms, sees the potential for expanded fruit and berry trade as positive. Best known in Manatee County for the hundreds of acres of strawberry fields it farms, Wish Farms processes and sells both domestic and imported blueberries throughout the United States.

JC Clinard, the company's chief operating officer, said Wish Farms handles only a small amount of cold-processed berries. Having two local ports near the company's headquarters could make the commodity more attractive year-round.

"An additional avenue to receive these goods may provide additional opportunities since it is much closer to our facility in Plant City," he said.

Administered by the non-profit Florida Perishables Trade Coalition, the pilot is intended to bring more fresh fruit trade to the state. Tiffany Martinez, a staff member with the coalition, said the program is limited in scope, including just a few nations and products with a track record in the pest control method.

Peru in particular, she said, has been participating since the beginning of the pilot because it has a long history of using cold treatment.

"They work hard on their end," Martinez said.

While Martinez was not able to estimate the economic impact of opening Florida ports to cold-treated produce, Port Manatee officials say the port has much to gain. It has a lot of cold storage space to fill with produce.

The port is ranked as one of the top five cold storage port facilities on the East Coast, with 207,000 square feet of refrigerated storage. The port and private industry partner Logistec have agreed to build an additional 148,000-square-foot refrigerated warehouse which is slated to open in 2017.

Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter