Aug 31, 2017
Florida strawberry grower expands into blueberries

Sam Astin III started as a medium-sized Florida strawberry grower. By considerably expanding his acreage, he became one of the state’s leading strawberry growers.

Always looking to the future, Astin recently increased his blueberry production, too.

Astin is president and owner of Astin Farms and Astin Strawberry Exchange in Plant City, Florida. A third-generation grower, he has been growing strawberries and other vegetables since childhood.

Astin has commercially harvested strawberries for more than three decades. He began with 12 acres in 1983. He markets his fruit to retailers through his exchange, which he founded in 2001. Today, he grows and ships fruit from 1,300 acres, which includes 150 acres from childhood friend and grower Steve Mathis. For the 2016-17 season, which ended in March, Astin packed more than 4 million flats.

In 2013, Astin planted his first crop of blueberries south of Plant City in Hillsborough County. Production is packed and cooled in a 20,000-square-foot cooling operation in Wimauma, Florida, which Astin constructed in 2012. This spring, he added 15,000 square feet to accommodate increasing blueberry production. The first year, Astin harvested from 37 acres. The following year, he added 75 acres, and in 2015 another 90 acres. In total, Astin grows on more than 200 acres and also packs and markets 275 acres of fruit grown by Mathis and Shawn Pollard, the exchange’s longtime salesman. During the 2017 season, which began in late March and usually runs through May, Astin’s blueberry production increased into larger commercial volume. He expects to harvest up to 1 million pounds of fruit.

Astin’s berry pedigree goes back to the 1920s, when his grandfather Sam Astin Sr., a Plant City sharecropper, started growing vegetables, including bell peppers, and strawberries. Sam Astin Jr., Astin’s father, also grew berries and vegetables. At age 6, the younger Astin would ride his bicycle to the family farm, where he worked daily. A neighbor kept telling Astin’s father that he needed to let his son grow berries, because he would be good at it.

At 13, Astin planted his first acre of zucchini squash. When he turned 17, he bought his first property and planted 5 acres. The crop went well, and absent excessive production costs, Astin earned a $20,000 profit. He worked the field every day after school.

In 1983, when he was 19, Astin partnered with his father and planted 12 acres of strawberries. Unfortunately, a killer freeze destroyed much of the region’s crops. Astin made a crop that spring, but it was too late to hit the market window. The next year, he more than doubled his acreage.

This past spring, an abnormally warm growing season accelerated strawberry production and finished harvest earlier than normal. Blueberries have been tough in recent years. Last season, the crop came in later than usual, which caused Florida to overlap with south Georgia and kept prices low, he said.

“The main thing is, we need to hit our window,” Astin said. “We (Florida) need to take after imports and try to be ahead of the northern growing regions.”

The addition of blueberries works well because produce department buyers that purchase strawberries in most cases also buy blueberries. For the third year, Astin, late in the strawberry season, sent strawberries to MBG Marketing’s processing plant in Alma, Georgia, which slices fruit and can help keep excess production off the fresh market and help maintain prices during times of oversupply.

The biggest challenge pressing Florida strawberry growers is increasing Mexican production, which floods the market with lower-priced fruit in January and February during peak Florida shipping.

“I’ve seen what happened to the Florida vegetable farms,” Astin said. “Many of those guys can’t make it. There’s not enough revenue from the crops they’re growing to stay in business. Going forward, it will be very challenging competing with Mexico. I don’t know what the future holds, but they are really affecting our prices.”

Astin formerly grew squash and eggplant, but discontinued the items due to low prices caused by high Mexican supplies.

Another sizable challenge is securing adequate labor for harvesting. A modern camp that houses 400 workers is a drawing card in his quest to attract quality workers who return yearly, Astin said.

For sustainability, Astin Farms is a member of IMPAC, or the International Member of the Precision Ag Community, a group of farmers dedicated to sustainable farming practices who are transparent with consumers about their growing processes. The growers use precision agriculture to adhere to standards set by the International Responsible Farming Council, a nonprofit organization.

Astin and his wife Buffy have been married since 1993. All three daughters, Madison, 22, Payton, 19, and Baylee, 17, plan to work in the family farming operation.

“I see a lot of future in farming,” Madison said. “It’s a matter of overcoming the challenges and filling a void in society where you can be successful. It’s important to be innovative, especially today, when you have to stay on top of that in order to even compete against everyone else.”

For five consecutive years, Astin was honored by the Florida Strawberry Growers Association for being the industry’s top producer in terms of yield and other categories.

“You have to have good quality,” Astin said. “Without good quality, you won’t get repeat customers.”

Astin said his father, who died in 2005, was his mentor.

“He taught me how to work, how to appreciate what you’ve earned and not be wasteful,” Astin said. “He taught me to get out and go to work every morning, even if I don’t feel like it.”

— Doug Ohlemeier, contributing writer

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