A bumper strawberry crop a problem for farmers
PLANT CITY - For consumers, strawberries are even sweeter this season, with prices hitting record lows. That's bad news, though, for Plant City farmers, who have been growing the winter morsels for more than a century. "It started at the beginning of the season," said grower Carl Grooms. December prices paid to farmers were the lowest Grooms has seen in 38 years, dipping as low as $6 for an 8-pound flat of strawberries, which is below production costs, he said. The monthly average was $10, compared to about $16 in a typical December, Grooms said.Like many of the problems farmers face, this one is weather-related. It's the same winter weather prized by residents and visitors alike. An unusually warm December caused an early-season spike in strawberry production in eastern Hillsborough County and elsewhere, including Mexico, a continually expanding competitor. "Every production area seemed to have reasonable weather, and we had better than normal weather, so the plants produced a lot of fruit," said Ted Campbell, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association in Dover. Local growers and their Mexican counterparts pick their berries at the same time, so exceptionally large early harvests reached market together this year. The bumper crop drove down prices for early-season strawberries. "Had we not had so much volume in December, prices would have been higher," Campbell said. "The markets dipped earlier than normal this year, so there was no good money to be made early in season. Growers typically need to make a good dollar-return on the early harvesting fruit, which is November and December, in order to overcome the low-dollar return at the end of the season in March or early April." In such an environment, Mexican growers enjoy an advantage, said Grooms, owner of Plant City's 235-acre Fancy Farms. "In Mexico they can do a lot of things we can't do here, and their labor is tremendously cheaper than ours," he said. "They can sell for a cheaper price and still make a profit." The added volume from Mexico means grocery chains and other buyers of wholesale strawberries can play with the price differential, said Grooms. "We have no control on our destiny whatsoever pertaining to market price," he said. The only recourse local farmers have is to work longer into the season, which lasts roughly from Thanksgiving to Easter. "It's been tough year, no question," Campbell said. "But our guys are still picking and trying to scrape some money out of this crop this year. That's the secret right now: Keep the fruit moving, get it fresh, get it cleaned, get it sold, get people to eat more." Local growers' early-season troubles illustrate how much farming is "the ultimate risk/reward profession," Campbell said. "Some years you're good, some years you're not, and usually when you make good money it's because another area had a problem," he said. "Next year it may be you with the problem. Everyone has the problematic year in conjunction with an occasional profitable year." Signs at roadside produce stands reflect fluctuating prices for strawberries in eastern Hillsborough County, where about 10,000 acres produce more than 90 percent of the state's crop and account for nearly all of the nation's winter strawberries. Even at the grocery store prices are way down. The average low price for a pint of strawberries between December and February was $3.07, according to The Tampa Tribune's weekly survey of area grocery stores. A year ago, that average was $3.58. The price is less than $2 this week at Sweetbay, Publix and Walmart. Don't expect prices to be low everywhere, though. "Just because the farm loses money, doesn't necessarily mean the retailer is going to give it away," Campbell said. "It just doesn't work that way."
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