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Plant City, FL-based Wish Farms has been known as an innovator for decades, even when it was Wishnatzki Farms, which was before a major rebranding effort created the more user-friendly label. Third-generation owner Gary Wishnatzki led that charge via a focus on marketing, but he also keeps an eye on the products that have increasingly made the label a consumer favorite.

As one of the state’s larger producers of strawberries and blueberries, Wish Farms is always looking for an edge to do more for clients and consumers alike. A recently revamped website offers videos, recipes and seasonal information, and the company’s Facebook page now has more than 11,000 fans. Just a year ago that number stood at 3,000.

Wish-12Gary and Therese Wishnatzki in one of their Florida strawberry fields. (Photos courtesy of Wish Farms)While some grower-shippers believe it is enough to simply slap up a Web presence then sit back and wait to reap the benefits, Mr. Wishnatzki knows it takes more than mere lip service to engage consumers and keep them coming back, and he often becomes personally involved in that process.

“Some of the communication we get from consumers sometimes is amazing,” Mr. Wishnatzki said. “We just recently relaunched our website: added some material, freshened it up a little bit and also added a great catalog of new recipes to help engage consumers,” said Mr. Wishnatzki. “We continue building our Facebook following and are connecting all that through Pinterest and other social media, and we’re getting some good traction from consumers.”

While some companies fear an active online presence makes them vulnerable to negative remarks and consumers wanting to take public potshots, Mr. Wishnatzki realizes online interaction is a chance to hear positive things about Wish Farms as well as set the record straight when miscommunication occurs.

“That’s one of the things that differentiates us from a lot of our competitors — we’re actually soliciting consumer feedback. We’re not afraid of hearing negatives — it can only make you stronger and gives you the opportunity to make it right with that one individual who had a bad experience. We’re really debunking some things: people’s misconceptions about the fruit and where it comes from and how we produce it,” Mr. Wishnatzki said. “I got one today — we ask consumers to rate us one a scale of 0-10 — and this guy Ben from Pennsylvania rated us as a two. We asked him what one thing could we do to improve our product? And he wanted to know, ‘Why are the berries shinier than the simonized finish on my car? Are they safe to eat?’ He thought we were waxing the berries. I explained that’s just their natural sheen and I assured him they were safe to eat.”

Wish Farms is also a leader in organic berries, with about 120 acres in production in Florida. But one consumer had a complaint with that product, writing in an email, “Go organic! The strawberries were over-large and oval-shaped, looked unrealistic.”

Mr. Wishnatzki had to laugh at that one. Only Mother Nature is responsible for the shape and size of his strawberries — or any others.

Meanwhile, the Wish Farms team pays even closer attention to its product and production than to its marketing efforts.

“You can waste a lot of money on branding if you don’t give the consumer a good product and they get home and enjoy it,” Mr. Wishnatzki said.

The company’s Florida strawberry season is “off to a good start, prices in December were a good bit higher than they were last year, we didn’t have the heat wave and the quality issues we had last year. It’s been more of a typical December so we are thankful for that,” Mr. Wishnatzki said. “The big difference that we see this year is that California did not have the production in December that they had in 2011. Mexico is not any lighter but I’ve been saying I believe we can coexist with Mexico and this [market] sort of proves it — looks like last year was more of an aberration and not the norm. We’re always going to have competition and we have to expect that. Competition does tend to make you stronger and make you look for ways to save costs and improve quality. Competition can be good.”

One way competition has spurred Wishnatzki is in the development of a bloom count model that helps forecast harvests.

“One thing that’s helped us and continues to help us be able to make good market and price decisions is our bloom count model, we’ve been using it for three or four years and are constantly refining it and are now forecasting out three to four weeks,” Mr. Wishnatzki said.

“I don’t think anybody’s putting more resources in forecasting the market,” he continued. “We spend quite a bit of time and energy trying to make good decisions. That information certainly helps you give customers the right information about time to promote and times not to. Currently our modeling is showing we’re going to be increasing production through January, by far the highest volume of the season, so it should be a very good time to promote and we would expect that going into Valentine’s Day that should follow suit. There is that one caveat you have to watch out for — the weatherman is usually only good for about three days unfortunately. However the modeling does give us a good benchmark and it shows us trends and what to expect.”

While many Florida growers are focusing more on Florida’s new star variety, the Radiance. Wishnatzki’s resources and size give the company the flexibility to grow several varieties of strawberries, including the Treasure, a former favorite that is losing ground in some producers’ programs.

“We do believe in not putting all our eggs in one basket,” Mr. Wishnatzki said. “We try to select varieties for different criteria — eating quality and shipability we put quite a bit of value on; being early; and size and shape of course. It’s interesting on the Treasures, we’re growing about 100 acres in Duett [FL] and actually to this point quality wise, and production wise it’s our leading variety right now and it’s produced more per acre. We’re not giving up on the Treasure just yet. Our growers have a lot of Radiance in our programs but it’s way less than 50 percent, Festivals are a big part of our program, Albions, Camino Real, several newcomers that are looking promising, Winter Star is one we’re looking at as well as some California varieties. It’s important to spread your risk not only on varieties but nursery sources and planting dates,” he said. “It just gives you a little more mixture for marketing purposes and ability to get the crop harvested. Plus with factors like disease and pests you always want to have your risk spread around a little bit.”

The company is also sponsoring major events in Florida, including an upcoming supershow headlined by country star Alan Jackson at the Tampa Amphitheater and the musical performances at the annual Florida Strawberry Festival in March, which in the past has seen headliners like Willie Nelson and George Jones among legions of others.

“Those are just some of the marketing things we’ve been doing,” Mr. Wishnatzki said. “We recently did a New Year’s Eve promotion at the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa in conjunction with Radio Disney, we’re, a lot of consumer based promotions and trying to build our brand awareness locally and then build it further from there — we’ve got a lot of neat things going on in the marketing side.”

And on the production side, Mr. Wishnatzki definitely has “a few projects in the pipeline,” he said. “We’re not done innovating, that’s for sure.”