At 75, Buddy Sewell has celebrated as many birthdays as there have been strawberry festivals. He lives just down the road from the house on Valrico Road where he was born, on the land where his family has made their living off the berries for nearly five generations.
Sewell, who strides through strawberry rows in a baseball cap and glasses with his face tanned from years of working the fields, makes more money in a week now than he and his father would make in a whole season when he was growing up, he said.
"It's been good to me," he said of strawberry farming. "I can't complain."
The 75th Florida Strawberry Festival kicked off Thursday and runs through March 14. Many local strawberry farms that created the industry celebrated by the festival still exist. Sewell's farm is among the oldest.
His grandfather founded Sewell and Sewell farms in 1928. When Sewell was in school in the 1950s, the festival was just starting to get big, he said. Now, he'll go to the festival to see his grandchildren show their pigs and cattle.
Strawberry farming has changed, he said, just as the festival has.
Sewell remembers working the fields with mules and horses instead of tractors. He recalls the days before drip irrigation made watering plants easy or developers bought up farmland to build houses.
He manages the farm with his daughter-in-law, Marie Sewell. In June, they'll pass it down to the fifth generation, his grandson Mark Sewell, 22.
Mark Sewell said that after his father died two years ago, he took over much of the day-to-day management. It's something he has wanted to do since he went out to the fields as a child with his father and grandfather, he said.
"I know it's going to be a lot harder nowadays than it was when he first started," Mark Sewell said of his grandfather. "But I want to give it a shot."
Buddy Sewell is fuzzy on some of the details of farm life. He can't remember how many varieties of berries his farm has produced over the years. He doesn't know all of the varieties various farms are offering this year.
But seven decades after he first entered a strawberry field, he's still hooked on trying to improve.
"It's just a challenge every year to try and make a better crop," he said.
Sewell said farming this season's crop has been more challenging than usual. His harvest is down about 50 percent from last year.
"This is the first winter I ever saw like this," he said, although the big freezes in 1983 and 1985 were tough, too.
"It hit us all bad," he said.
Helen Parke, whose late husband, Roy, founded Plant City's Parkesdale Farms in the 1950s, remembers three days in 1983 when temperatures never rose above freezing.
Workers patrolled the fields constantly because the sprinklers froze, she said. A few people took turns working around the clock until the sun came out.
"They couldn't have taken too many more days like that," she said.
Kids picked — or else
As is the case with many growers who operate family farms, strawberries have defined Sewell's life and even his education.
Growing up, he went to a "strawberry school," which ran from the Monday after Easter until December so that children could work on their family farms in the winter.
"Back then, if you didn't work when you were a kid, they whipped the tar out of you," he said. "You couldn't get many grown people to pick 'em."
He and his older sister did most of the work. By the time his younger siblings were in school, strawberry schools were disappearing.
Gary Wishnatzki, president of Wishnatzki Farms, said that when his grandfather moved part of his wholesale produce business to Plant City from New York in 1937, there were hundreds of family farms. Family size dictated a farm's productivity.
"The more kids you had, the more pickers you had," he said.
It takes all sizes
Wishnatzki Farms started farming strawberries in 1987. Until then, the family had always used local growers to supplement their packing business, Wishnatzki said.
While operations like Wishnatzki Farms and Parkesdale have had explosive expansion over the past half a century, Sewell isn't bothered by not being the biggest farm in the area.
He has about 60 employees and farms about 65 acres of strawberries. He said he's proud of his farm's ability to finance itself without depending on bigger businesses for backing. He looks forward to turning over the farm in June. He plans to fish and relax.
The rules that govern farming now, such as labor laws and safety regulations, have taken some of the fun out of farming for him, he said. He got into farming to grow berries, not to track every truck that goes in and out of his farm.
He didn't always think farming was fun, though.
"When I was young, I used to swear that if I ever got old enough, I was leaving this farm," he said.
Now, he can't see himself having done anything else.
"I guess it's kind of in your blood, you know?"
Hilary Lehman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2441.