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Plant City strawberry farmers banking on early harvest, new variety

By Yvette C. Hammett
Published: November 28, 2015 Updated: November 29, 2015 at 01:33 PM
Farmworker Anahit Duarte sorts strawberries at a Wish Farms field operated in Plant City in mid-November. Researchers are studying three new varieties of strawberries that might be able to better withstand early fall’s heat.

PLANT CITY — When Florida’s early winter strawberries hit the market in all of their ruby red glory, consumers are ready and willing to pay top dollar for them — about $25 for an 8-pound cardboard flat.

But as the season moves into spring, the price typically plummets as more berries flood the market — flats can drop to $7. During the past two years, the price problem has been exacerbated by an influx of Mexican and California berries.

The issue motivated a couple of University of Florida professors to study how Plant City-area farmers can stay competitive and keep the price up longer. The answer, according to their study published in the journal Agricultural Systems, is to harvest earlier.

There is one big nagging problem, though. It’s Florida. It’s typically hot into the fall season. Strawberries don’t like hot.

Researchers are studying three new varieties of strawberries this year that might be able to better withstand the early fall heat. They are also experimenting with management practices that could help growers in their quest to keep berry prices up longer.

Farmers are banking now on a strawberry variety known as Sweet Sensation. They hope its quality will persuade grocers and consumers to keep their loyalty to Florida fruit.

UF strawberry breeder and associate professor Vance Whitaker and university economist and assistant professor Zhengfei Guan, both at the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Balm, released their findings recently.

To stay competitive, strawberry growers must produce more fruit in November and December, the study shows. While some say this area’s farmers are already pushing the envelope toward earlier harvesting, they might need to push a bit harder, Whitaker said. “What we are really talking about is about 10 days earlier in starting to pick and a definite increase in volume.”

That change could increase growers’ profits by $3,000 per acre, Guan said.

Meanwhile, if the three experimental berries planted this year work out, they could be on the market within three or four years, Whitaker said. If they don’t, it could be six to eight years before newer varieties are in the ground, he said.

“Historically, and I’m going back for generations, Florida’s market window has been winter production, Thanksgiving to Easter,” said Kenneth Parker, executive director of the Plant City-based Florida Strawberry Growers Association. Thus, the name Winter Strawberry Capital of the World given years ago to Plant City.

“Although berry consumption and demand is at an all-time high, which is a good thing, when we look at the returns on a per-flat basis or the price per package, the earlier in the season, the higher the price,” Parker said. “Mexico isn’t yet hitting full stride, and we’re not either.”

There are several things strawberry farmers can do to stay in business, Parker said. One is to reduce costs, something he calls “a novel idea but not based in reality.”

Another is to get more berries out in November and December. “For years, we’ve tried to manipulate varieties we have, but some just don’t like hot weather. That’s why we invest so much in the breeding program. Through that program we have selected new varieties that will give us earlier yielding potential. We need a constant supply so we can avoid peaks and valleys” in the market.

There are also issues of shelf life and flavor. “It’s a very perishable commodity. You can’t store berries,” Whitaker said. “It’s a real complicated thing.”

Strawberry grower and marketer Gary Wishnatzki, whose Wish Farms handles strawberries from numerous farms in Hillsborough and Manatee counties, said it is quality more than early harvesting that will save the Florida berry industry.

This year, he said, growers with Wish Farms have planted about 250 of an overall 1,000 acres with Sweet Sensations, a variety Whitaker developed. They will be sold this year in a number of area supermarkets and shipped north.

“I was told a long time ago by my father and uncle if you’ve got good berries, they will sell. They’ve got to look good and taste good. People will buy fruit one time because it looks good, but again and again when it tastes good,” Wishnatzki said. Sweet Sensations taste really good, he said. “The shelf life is good. It has good size and we’ve seen pretty good yields, so we are actually branding them.”

As other promising varieties are created, Parker said, they’ll be added to the Sweet Sensations brand so consumers will recognize them, much like they recognize vine-ripened Tasti-Lee tomatoes, also developed at the Balm center and sold locally.

Strawberries are a $366 million industry in Florida and contribute about $1 billion to the Hillsborough County economy, including picking, packaging, marketing and retail sales, according to the growers association. The crop typically covers 10,000 acres.

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