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First the cold, now the rain pose problems for Plant City strawberry farmers

Excess moisture is causing angular leaf spot, which is bacteria on the leaves of the strawberries.

Bay News 9

Excess moisture is causing angular leaf spot, which is bacteria on the leaves of the strawberries.

TAMPA — First it was the cold. Now it's the rain, the humidity and all that fog.

Farmers who struggled to save plants from this winter's bitter cold are contending with an unusual amount of rain that is encrusting some plants with fungus and swelling berries until they crack.

"The plants just don't like being wet," said Ted Campbell, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association.

About 90 percent of commercial strawberry farms in Florida are within 20 miles of Plant City, and some amount of the fungus, known as angular leaf spot, has been seen at about half of the farms. That's about 10,000 acres of crops seeing minor to more severe damage from the rain.

"It's not a death sentence to the industry," Campbell said. But some farms could use a break from the rain right now.

Heavy rain is more difficult to deal with than a freeze, but farmers are still faring better than last year, which saw record-breaking cold in January. The pathogens for fungus is always there, but rain lets it fester.

A lot of rain in a short time sets up fruit for disease, said Lisa Lochridge, a spokeswoman for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association. Strawberries are more delicate than most fruits or vegetables.

The fungus grows on leaves and produces spots on the fruit, said George Casey, who owns a Hernando County blueberry and strawberry farm.

"They are not a No. 1 quality berry, they are No. 2," Casey said.

That makes a big difference in a farmer's bottom line, since No. 1 quality berries sell for $2.50 a pound while No. 2 berries go for $1 a pound.

No. 2 berries are mashed into jellies and jams.

Rain will continue to present obstacles for strawberry growers on Thursday morning before being pushed out of the region by a cold front in the afternoon.

Temperatures should be mild through the weekend, with highs in the 50s and lows in the 40s.

"We'll be lucky to get out of the 50s on Saturday," said Bay News 9 senior meteorologist Mike Clay.

Despite a few heavy rains in January, Lochridge has no reports of major problems in the state, and Central and South Florida still need more rain to make up for a deficit.

Too much rain in a short time is tougher on strawberries than on citrus fruits with a thicker peel to protect them, said Greg Gude, general manager of Kumquat Growers Inc. in Pasco County.

Still, the farm's 42 acres had a small percentage of the kumquats split or grow fungus.

Farmers sprayed crops with water or fungicide this season to protect their crops, but heavy rains can wash it away.

Fungus showed up two weeks ago on Casey's farm just southwest of Brooksville. Rain wiped out about 5 percent of his crops.

"It's been a hard winter and hard season," Casey said. "But that's farming."

Berries are picked every three days or so from the 210 acres at Fancy Farms in Plant City. Rain has cracked "a substantial amount" of strawberries and left some fruit with rotten spots similar to those on a banana or a bad apple, said owner Carl Grooms.

Grooms said there's no way to make up for less productive season after all the weather trouble this season. And he can't remember the last good season. There are always two or three obstacles, he said.

"There's no way to make up for a loss," Grooms said. "It's sort of like sex. If you didn't get it last night, you ain't going to make it up no time."

First the cold, now the rain pose problems for Plant City strawberry farmers 02/09/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 9, 2011 11:14pm]
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