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Thursday, May 24, 2018
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Plant City area strawberry growers aiming for a sweet season

PLANT CITY – A shortage of local labor, strong competition from Mexico and the variables of the marketplace may well trump Mother Nature on strawberry growers’ watch list.

Certainly all of those – and more – are on Carl Grooms’ radar as the planting season gets underway.

On Oct. 2, workers fanned out across the raised rows of Grooms’ Fancy Farms acreage and began poking strawberry plants through holes in plastic. Predicting the perfect time to put plants in the ground varies from grower to grower.

“That magic day is unknown,” said Grooms. But the mornings and evenings were cooler, the crew had arrived and the land had been prepared. “That’s the time Daddy said to do it.”

Grooms began preparing for this day in the spring, ordering plants from nurseries as far flung as Nova Scotia, Canada, California, Oregon and North Carolina. That’s also when he started the laborious process of importing labor from Honduras and Guatemala.

His crew that first day consisted of about 60 workers: half local and half who arrived from Honduras through the H-2A temporary agricultural program. Another 25 Hondurans arrived the following day, and 40 Guatemalans soon followed.

The H-2A allows agricultural employers who anticipate a shortage of domestic workers to bring non-immigrant foreign workers into the U.S. to perform agricultural labor or provide services that are temporary or seasonal in nature. Effective Jan. 18, nationals from almost 50 countries became eligible to participate in the H-2A program.

“We need a reliable labor source that is ready to do the job and do it correctly,” said Grooms. “It will take 200 workers working every day during production season to stay up with the berries that need to be harvested. Berries don’t get ripe just on the weekdays.”

Grooms has contracted with about 100 people through the program, supplying housing, transportation and wages.

“A fair wage for a fair job,” said Grooms. “We need to treat these people with dignity, because they are here to help us.”

Last season, he was forced to abandon berry fields because of a shortage of local labor. And he was not alone.

“In January, we let fields go because we couldn’t get labor,” said Gary Wishnatzki, president and CEO of Wish Farms, which cultivates 700 acres of strawberries in Manatee County. In addition to picking, labor is needed to clean the rows and keep the plants groomed, but crews couldn’t be found to work the hours available – and needed.

The workforce has shrunk over the last five to 10 years, Wishnatzki said.

“It’s really been noticeable for five years and (our) acreage hasn’t shrunk, it’s grown and the industry still is expanding.”

Wish Farms added 50 acres this season, but is keeping a close eye on the labor situation.

“I think it would be foolish not to be worried about it,” Wishnatzki said. “Hope is not a strategy.”

Wish Farms is investigating H-2A, but housing, transportation and having the staff to administer the program is daunting, said Wishnatzki.

“(H-2A) is a mind-boggling set of regulations,” said Ted Campbell, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association. “But that’s becoming one of the only resources we have. Our labor is vaporizing right now.”

Added to that concern is increasing competition from Mexico.

While California produces 85 percent of strawberries in long-day varieties, Florida produces the other 15 percent in short-day varieties. Long-day varieties produce the bulk of fruit from April through November. Short-day strawberries will bud with less light and in cooler temperatures, and can be planted, tended and produce salable harvests when other varieties are dormant or not producing.

“We are king of the hill in the short-day variety,” said Campbell.

Mexican production could change that equation. In the past five years, large U.S. companies moved south of the border to escape labor costs and regulations, said Campbell. Those companies can operate for less and produce short-day varieties in months when California berries aren’t in season.

The nearly 100 growers in Hillsborough, along with those in Highlands, Polk and Manatee counties, are “the collateral damage,” Campbell said.

“Mexico is the biggest encroachment we face. Mexican fruit is good quality now, it’s well financed and they have strong varieties.”

The problem primarily is one of over-production. “When you have an increase in supply without an increase in demand, prices decline,” said Campbell. “There is a point of no return.”

It costs $12,000 per acre to plant, said Campbell.

“And we have no idea if they are going to get picked and what they will sell for.”

Mexico is cultivating 25,000 acres of strawberries to Hillsborough’s 11,000, said Grooms.

“We’ll be competing with (Mexico) with the first crate of berries we pick,” said Grooms. “I hope the American people will buy American farmers’ strawberries and leave the others sitting on the shelf.”

All of Grooms’ 235 acres will be planted in the early variety Florida Radiance, which he said are sweet, large and have good color. Last season, he planted 75 percent in Radiance and 25 percent in Strawberry Festival. The Festival was a firm berry, but didn’t taste as sweet.

“I have enough confidence to plant all of it,” said Grooms. “Sweet is the first denominator that consumers go after.”

Taste is the biggest complaint about California berries, said Campbell.

“Big, beautiful and tasteless.”

Most local acreage will be planted in strawberry varieties developed by the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Florida (IFAS/UF). Radiance and Festival are most popular, said Campbell. One up-and-comer is the Winterstar and the Florida Sensation is another promising cultivar.

“The breeding program at University of Florida has come a long way,” said Wishnatzki. “Florida varieties have become quite popular.”

Wish Farms’ acres will be planted primarily in Radiance and Festival varieties, with 180 acres set aside for organic planting.

“It costs more and the yield is less, but demand is growing.”

It is a challenging task to grow without the use of pesticides in Florida, said Campbell.

“It’s like farming in a jungle.” Weeds will consume a field, sting nematodes kill plants by eating their roots, and there are fungal diseases to combat.

Methyl bromide, once used for soil sterilization and linked to ozone depletion, has been replaced by a “cocktail of chemicals,” said Campbell.

“No one (chemical) does it all now.”

The pesticide Paladin, which contains dimethyl disulfate, was used more widely this year by local growers. It’s both effective and economical, said Campbell, despite having an offense odor.

“(The smell) is certainly at the front of our minds, because it is the most effective chemical we’ve had come down in 10 years.”

It is critical, he said, to fumigate the soil before bedding plants because it negates the need to spray chemicals on the fruit during the harvesting season.

It’s a common misconception that the strawberry season is a short one, said Wishnatzki. The harvest starts in November and sometimes lasts until April. And much can happen in between.

The area has been fortunate in having little in the way of freeze damage for several years, though 2010 was a disastrous year. All bets are off if an extraordinary event occurs, said Campbell.

Growers expect nature to be unreliable, from freezes to rain-ruined crops, said Grooms. But it is the market price that agriculture fears the most, he said.

“Chain stores buy the lowest price and Mexico will be lower because their labor is cheaper.”

Wish Farms, a national produce marketer and broker, has a full-time market analyst and two people who count strawberry blooms. It is a way to forecast production three to four weeks out and share that information with retailers, said Wishnatzki. Wish has used the technique for several years, and it is working well, he said.

Grooms just hopes to produce a good crop, get it picked, give consumers a good strawberry, pay expenses and have something leftover.

It’s a good, clean crop, he said. “It’s always been a delicacy. They were for kings and queens.”

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