PLANT CITY — A sinkhole ruined Sandy Bruce's Plant City home, which sits just a few miles from strawberry farms that pumped millions of gallons of water to save their crops.
So when she found out Thursday that many farmers' berries are rotting on the bush because they can't sell them for a profit, she was furious.
"That is the most irritating thing in the world," she said. "I just thought, oh my God, I cannot believe all the suffering we have gone through since Jan. 12, and this is what's come out of it."
Evan Chrietzberg, whose Plant City home was condemned because of a giant sinkhole, said he understands that farmers are trying to run businesses, but "it's aggravating," he said.
Strawberry farmers say they're tired of being the bad guys. They're upset, too, because they'd like to be making a profit. But they're getting only about $6 to $7 a flat, and considering the labor, packaging and cooling costs, some would be operating at a loss if they picked.
"It's simple economics," said Florida Strawberry Grower Association president Ted Campbell. "If you can't afford to pay the pickers, you can't afford to pick."
Farmer Lane Wetherington said it's depressing to be constantly blamed, and farmer Carl Grooms said it's not farmers' fault they can't afford to pick. It's the market, which is out of their control, he said.
In March, strawberry crops from the North and California compete with local berries. The supply exceeds demand, pushing down prices.
"The most frustrated people in this situation is us growers," Grooms said. "It was our livelihood."
But many are asking: If farmers can't afford to pick their berries, why not let others? It's the waste that bothers them.
Stacey Efaw, the director of the Brandon-based Emergency Care Help Organization, or E.C.H.O., a food bank just a few miles from several strawberry farms, said she could get groups of high school students who need community service hours into the fields to pick for her organization.
"That would be awesome," she said. "We hardly get fresh produce. It's very expensive."
Margie Lewis, the coordinator of the Tampa-Lakeland area Gleaners organization, said she has local Girl Scouts who could pick leftover berries to donate to local food banks.
"It's such a sad thing to let them go to waste," she said. "Especially when people are hungry."
Some farmers are willing to let U-pickers or charities onto their property, but the specter of a potential lawsuit scares others. Grooms said he has never been sued, but a woman who suffered heat exhaustion in his field decades ago died in the hospital, he said, and cars have gotten stuck in ditches.
"I've had some incidents where I've got cussed out royally," he said.
Also, many strawberry farmers plant spring crops — such as squash, beans and cantaloupe — between their berry plants, and they don't want the public to damage them.
Still, Gary Wishnatzki, president of Wishnatzki Farms, said he understands that people are angry.
At lunch on Thursday, he and three of his employees discussed the community backlash.
"So we said, 'Why don't we open up our fields to the food banks?' " he said.
Late Thursday, Wishnatzki announced he would open a part of his field to the public on Saturday.
He's inviting people to pick for Feeding America Tampa Bay, formerly America's Second Harvest, and to pick for themselves.
"We wanted to do something positive," Wishnatzki said. "I don't see any reason why we shouldn't."
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3433.