Will Florida finger limes be the “next big thing,” or will they show mediocre or poor performance in the commercial market? That’s a question two University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) researchers hope to answer. Trent Blare and Fredy Ballen, both with the Tropical Research and Education Center in Homestead, discussed their work in a virtual UF/IFAS symposium in March.
“There has been growing hype around finger limes from chefs and foodies, but the fruit has yet to be found in commercial and retail markets,” stated a summary of the researchers’ presentation. “Growers are interested in finger limes as citrus greening and international competition have made other citrus and fruit markets less appealing. They are lured by the premiums that the few growers who have finger limes are receiving in upscale markets. However, many are concerned that finger limes are just a fad and are skeptical that the high prices are sustainable.”
Blare reported on preliminary findings from interviews with wholesalers, chefs and processors. He noted that 84% of millennials consume specialty foods, and specialty foods make up 20% of the U.S. commercial food industry. “Finger limes are part of that,” he said.
But he warned that growing markets may not lead to growing income for producers. For instance, kale sales increased by 10.7% in 2020 but per-pound retail prices decreased slightly. “Everyone jumped into kale production, but the prices have actually gone down” and profit for growers isn’t as good as it used to be, Blare said. “So, this is a big lesson that we learn in the creation of products without doing our market research and looking how we can develop that.”
Blare showed a slide stating, “The bet on a new food trend can fail.” But he said, “Finger limes may be the next big thing” with growing demand from chefs and mixologists. He pointed out that prices are high for finger limes. Early this year, eight finger limes were selling for $32 on Amazon.
“It seems like there really could be an opportunity if we do it right,” Blare said, adding that more research is needed to determine if these limes can be marketed beyond their current niche.
Ballen reported that among 40 food industry people who responded to a survey about the UF SunLime finger lime, the vast majority rated pulp appearance and pulp color very high. They also gave high ratings for pulp flavor, juiciness and acidity. High-end restaurants/bars and high-end retail specialty stores were suggested as the best places for marketing. Traditional supermarkets were rated much lower as likely marketing venues.
Blare said the next research steps will include 300-plus interviews with consumers in South and Central Florida this summer and fall. The purpose of the interviews is to determine consumer willingness to pay for finger limes. “Building a market is a long process … We’re just starting,” he concluded.
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