PLANT CITY – Disease that wiped out millions of plants as the season dawned set the stage for an area strawberry harvest plagued by low production and lost profits.
Florida Strawberry Growers Association Executive Director Ted Campbell estimates that production was down 30 percent in the season that just wrapped up. He didn't have specific figures, but in 2012-13 Plant City area growers produced about 25 million flats.
Gary Wishnatzki, president of Wish Farms, the area's largest berry marketer, said farmers faced one challenge after another.
“Most growers will probably not come out of the season with a profit,” Wishnatzki said. “It wasn't a good season; it was pretty tough.”
At the start of the growing season in the fall, two major nurseries shipped diseased strawberry seedlings to growers in Plant City. Growers had to rip up the diseased young plants and spray the ones that weren't diseased.
“When you have to replant, it sets you back a month,” Campbell said.
Carl Grooms, who said he had to replace 1 million plants, said plant diseases are part of farming, but he'd never seen such a wide scale problem.
As the season progressed, other challenges emerged.
December was a good month, with prices in the $12 to $14 per flat range.
But January and February, generally two peak months, were so cool, cloudy and wet that plants weren't producing many berries.
“When weather is good, it's good for the farmer. When it's bad, it's bad for the farmer. But it's all up to the man upstairs,” Grooms said.
For most of the season, production was running about half its normal volume, but good weather in March helped growers make up some lost ground, Campbell said.
However, prices fell almost in half to the $6 to $7 per flat range, Grooms said.
“The prices they charge in the grocery stores didn't fall 50 percent overnight. I can't figure that one out,” he said.
Most of Florida's berries are grown on about 10,000 acres in the Plant City area. The harvest season is generally from about Thanksgiving to Easter.
Competition from growers in Mexico and California wasn't as keen as in recent years because of unfavorable weather in both areas, Campbell said. And there wasn't a shortage of pickers, due in part to the fact that there wasn't as much fruit to harvest, he said.
Wishnatzki said the adequate supply of workers doesn't mean that the problem has been solved.
“Labor seemed to be a little more available this year but the long term trend is still for labor to be short,” he said.
He said he's optimistic for next year because of a new variety of strawberry, the Florida sensation, should be available in large numbers. The new variety has a lot of good qualities including flavor that's been a hit with consumers, Wishnatzki said.
Next season always brings promise, Grooms said.
“We give it our best shot,” he said.
Grooms added that 2013-14 is the latest in a string of bad seasons.
“I don't know if I'd know what a good year is like any more,” he said.