Add a labor shortage to a long list of issues plaguing strawberry farmers in eastern Hillsborough County.
The shortage, brought on by stricter immigration controls, is causing farmers to leave fruit on the field this year because they don’t have enough workers to pick it, growers said during the annual Florida Berry Expo at the University of Florida’s Gulf Coast Research Center.
Growers were already reeling from a 2012 season when increased berry farming in Mexico and cheap fruit dumped on the U.S. market caused prices to plummet.
“It’s not a level playing field,” said UF economist Zhengfei Guan, who attended the expo. “We are going to see a lot of industry consolidation.”
A recent survey shows that 30 percent of the state’s berry farmers plan to downsize in the coming years.
Plant City’s Fancy Farms owner Carl Grooms said during the event that he is leaving dozens of acres of fruit in the fields this season because he doesn’t have the workers to pick and pack the strawberries.
Growers say are working on ways to adapt to the changing market.
They’ve hired lobbyists who are working with the federal government to create an “Ag Card” – not a green card -- that would allow immigrants to come in and pick the fields.
The industry also needs to find ways to use mechanical harvesting, Guan said.
“We need to innovate and change,” Guan said. “The single most competitive advantage for Mexico is cheap labor.”
Clyde Fraisse, an agriculture and biology engineer, told the crowd tools are being developed that will help farmers save money and become more environmentally friendly. He discussed a new smart phone app ready for testing that will give farmers a forecast and an irrigation schedule. He is seeking volunteers eager to give it a shot.
Reserachers are also looking for better ways to combat pests and freezing temperatures.
“Our squadron of PhDs out there is really dedicated,” said Ted Campbell, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association, during a recent discussion of the expo. “We are one of the unique crops in America and to have that type of extension sitting at our doorstep is fantastic.”