Grower Cuts Costs and Gains Customer Loyalty

Tacy Callies Fresh, fruit

By Sarah Bostick

Brown’s Grove proves there’s a place for imperfect fruit.

Grocery stores have trained the customer to expect exactly one type of fruit: spotless. Anyone who grows citrus for a living knows that achieving spotless fruit can be an expensive and time-consuming endeavor.

There is a growing movement in the United States that is pushing back against the idea that fruits and vegetables must be spotless to be worth buying. There are dozens of marketing slogans that celebrate the worth of produce that is not picture-perfect. At the core of this consumer-driven movement is the idea that fruits and vegetables are naturally imperfect.

A few years ago, Tim and Hiedi Brown of Brown’s Grove in Sarasota, Florida, started thinking about the amount of time and money they were putting into spraying their citrus trees for common pests and diseases. It added up to a lot more than they liked. They also felt that the amount of spraying needed to keep their citrus spotless wasn’t good for consumers or the environment.

The Browns sell their citrus as mail-order gift boxes and at local farmers’ markets. They decided to take a leap of faith and significantly cut back on spraying. The transition went well at farmers markets. When they brought their first low-spray harvest of citrus to their farmers’ markets, they were able to tell each customer the story behind minor spotting on the fruit. Rather than losing buyers, customers thanked them for bringing a low-spray option to market.

Successfully selling low-spray fruit with minor imperfections in mail-order gift boxes took a bit of trial and error. But the Browns figured out the key to success: communication. They simply put a nice note in each gift box that lets the customer know that the delicious and not-quite-spotless fruit is from a low-spray farm that prioritizes the safety of bees and a healthy environment. The fruit is billed as naturally imperfect and naturally delicious.

The imperfections on each piece of fruit tell the story of the Browns’ commitment to being responsible managers of the environment. Farmers across the nation are discovering that customers don’t mind superficial blemishes as long as they understand the reason behind them.  

Sarah Bostick is a University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences sustainable agriculture Extension agent in Sarasota.