Berry growers faced heat, competition and labor shortage this season
PLANT CITY - It was another tough season for area strawberry growers. Once again, blame the economic law of supply and demand – and a lack of harvesters. There were too many berries during the peak consumption months of December, January and February. Like in 2011-12, growers again encountered unseasonable heat that led to plants bursting forth with berries – particularly in January, a prime month for the harvest.They also competed with imports from Mexico, which once again had a bumper crop. Throw in a shortage of harvesters and “it was a tough financial year,” said Ted Campbell, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association. Plant City area growers produced an estimated 25 million flats of the fruit in 2012-13, about the same as the previous season. The farmers grow most of the winter strawberries produced in the U.S. The local growers did catch one break this season. California’s harvest was delayed due to weather, so for the most part they didn’t compete with that state’s farmers. “It wasn’t the best year, and it wasn’t the worst year,” said Gary Wishnatzki, president of Wish Farms, the Plant City area’s largest marketer of berries. No two years are exactly alike, but this season and last shared many similarities, including unseasonably warm weather and foreign competition, Campbell said. January was unusually warm, so plants produced more berries than buyers needed, grower Carl Grooms said. Cooler weather moved in during March, so it was unusually profitable, he said, but overall “we picked a lot of berries at or below what it costs to grow them.” The lack of harvesters seemed to be the major problem that emerged this season. Some growers had half the workers they needed to pick the crops, Campbell said. “We had growers who had to abandon their fields because they didn’t have enough workers. We literally left fruit in the field,” he said. Grooms said he stopped production on about 80 of his 235 acres for a lack of help. “I needed 300 workers and sometimes I had 150. They just weren’t out there,” he said. Last week, as he was wrapping up his crops, only eight harvesters showed up one day and 40 the next. “I need 100 a day,” he said. Campbell said the reasons for the labor shortage are varied but include a murky immigration situation. In the months when prices were low, the lack of workers helped keep fruit off the market – which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. But when prices were high, there weren’t enough hands in the fields. “We couldn’t move the fruit. That was very frustrating,” Campbell said. Wishnatzki said it will take congressional action to clear the way for more workers. Immigration reform will hopefully allow more guest workers to enter the country, he said. “It’s a reoccurring theme, and it’s been trending for some time now,” Wishnatzki said of the labor shortage. “It’s headed to a crisis situation.”
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