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As prices fall, strawberry farmers plow crops under

For weeks, it was difficult to find strawberries at grocery stores. Now, the shelves brim with cartons of berries and the prices are especially low.

But while shoppers are scoring on sales, the story out in the fields isn't so happy. Many farmers are plowing bushes filled with ripening strawberries under because they're not making enough to cover their costs.

"They got down to $5.90 (per flat), and we can't pick after that," said Buddy Sewell, of Sewell and Sewell farms in Valrico. He started plowing 50 acres of plants under last week.

The value of strawberries usually drops in March, as northern states and California join the market. Early in the season, farmers can often get about $20 per flat. That price falls until it hits about $5 to $6, when farmers stop picking.

But this year they're leaving a huge amount of berries to rot.

An abnormally cold winter and a series of freezing nights stalled the plants' production. Once temperatures rose, they all started producing berries at once — and in unusually large quantities.

"The cold weather shocks the plants," said Gary Wishnatzki, head of Wishnatzki Farms in Plant City. "It induced more blooms."

This spring, Florida farmers aren't only competing with Northern states but with one another. And the principle of supply and demand isn't on their side. Prices were high during the freezes, but they weren't able to pick then.

"It don't matter how good the price is if you don't have any berries," said Billy Simmons of Simmons Farm.

Now they have plenty of berries ready to be picked, but a flat is worth only about $5.90 to $6.90, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics released Wednesday.

Wishnatzki said many growers don't find it profitable to pick for prices below $6.90, unless they can process or sell the berries themselves. His company has a processing plant that slices berries for freezing and creates strawberry puree for drinks, so the farmers growing for him are still picking.

Decades ago, during this time of year, farmers would turn their fields over for U-pick to finish up the season. But liability and a preference for planting a spring crop has caused that tradition to dwindle to just a few local farms.

Now, farmers just let the berries rot on the plants. It might seem wasteful, but they explain that if they pick for such low profits, they'll lose money. They can't afford to do that — especially after such a bad season.

"We're really just hoping to break even this year," Wishnatzki said. "We will consider a break-even this season to be successful."

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3433.

As prices fall, strawberry farmers plow crops under 03/24/10 [Last modified: Thursday, March 25, 2010 9:42am]
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