Foreign fruit hurts Plant City farmers
TAMPA - The fields are thick this year with a bumper crop of Plant City's most famous fruit. That's good news for consumers but not necessarily for farmers. The warm winter has led to a glut of plump, flavorful strawberries, and the fruit is now so plentiful prices are down. Local farmers have gotten used to the seemingly contradictory economic realities of farming — a good year for crops means bad prices and vice versa — but this year they're struggling to deal with another threat: strawberries from Central Mexico. Mexico is importing a record number of strawberries into the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Through Jan. 28, Mexico imported 20 percent more of the fruit than the same period a year before, which also was a record-setting year."Mexico is importing more and more each year over the past four or five years," said Carl Grooms, owner of Fancy Farms in Plant City. "Anytime another country brings in an agricultural item and puts it on a shelf, it takes away opportunities of American farmers." The Plant City/Dover area has long been the heavyweight of the wintertime strawberry industry, producing the bulk of berries grown in the country this time of year. Growers here reap the benefits of being the only strawberry producers in the country until March, when the crop in California comes to fruition. Grooms said if grocery stores see a cheaper item, they will buy it to maximize their own profits. A grocery store in Plant City a week or so ago put Mexican strawberries on its shelves, he said. "It was a slap in the face," he said. "I hope they rot on the shelf. They are nice looking berries, though. I saw them." The Mexican berry imports are not going to go away, he said. "It's here," Grooms said. "It's going to be a problem." Ted Campbell, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association, said all the local farmers are watching imports from Mexico. "We do have to keep an eye on it," he said. "Central Mexico harvests all its fruit in our market window. Now we compete directly with them during the same months. They have a lot of acreage there and they have expanded aggressively." Central Mexico's berries are imported through Texas and end up in retail markets as far-flung as Chicago, New York and even Nova Scotia. "They have a huge volume going north of the border," Campbell said, and crops are heading to the same retailers who buy Plant City berries. The imported berries are a real concern, he said, though he doesn't expect them to doom Florida strawberry growers. "I won't say that," he said. "Our guys are so resilient. But Mexico is making some really tough economics for us." Marketing may be a key in competing, he said, like getting consumers to read labels. "American farmers will not survive," he said, "unless people here support American production." In addition to foreign competition, local farmers this year are dealing with the downside of ideal weather. Strawberry farmers in eastern Hillsborough County usually deal with a couple of sub-freezing nights each year, which cuts the supply, thereby increasing the prices per flat. So far this year, though, there have been no freezes and the result is a robust crop. Farmers already are selling flats of strawberries for half of what they were going for a month ago, Grooms said. "Not so good," Grooms said, when asked his assessment of the crop this year. "It depends on what you're looking at. December was good. January's disastrous. "January comes along and we had nine and 10 days of record heat," he said. "We've never had that before. We produced more then normal. The market was saturated and prices are very, very low." Florida's strawberry production, is more than 15 percent higher than last year, according to the USDA. Prices for a flat are below $10 each, Grooms said. That's the mark most farmers need to break even, "just to keep us in the business," he said.
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