PLANT CITY — If you're lucky enough to snatch up the earliest Florida strawberries, anticipated in limited supply at stores just before Thanksgiving, the clamshell in your hands could offer a peek into growers' and experts' expectations for this berry season:
Good weather: Consistently mild fall temperatures have kick-started crops, says Ted Campbell, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association. But the long-term outlook is still uncertain. Although the La Niña weather pattern may bring milder temperatures with occasional cold snaps, other factors could counteract those warming effects, says National Weather Service meteorologist Ernie Jillson.
Rising variety: The festival variety of strawberries remains Florida's dominant crop, but expect to see more varieties of berries. That's right; the relatively new Radiance variety is moving up past Treasure to take the No. 2 spot in the state's strawberry market, Campbell says. A proven performer, the Radiance berry maintains good flavor, tolerates cool temperatures and ships well.
New rules: After a long cold snap in January 2010, farmers' water usage for freeze protection drew criticism when wells dried and sinkholes opened. New water usage rules enacted this summer by the Southwest Water Management District look to prevent that from happening again. The Dover-Plant City area now has a minimum aquifer level with mandated automatic meter-reading devices.
Better technology: Those freezes also prompted more growers to install improved water recovery systems, such as ponds to collect and recycle water that drains from the fields. Farmers may also rely more on alternative freeze protection methods, such as cloth wraps to keep plants warm instead of watering to encase the plants in a cloak of ice.
More acres: Strawberry acreage has increased statewide by about 10 percent this year. Farmers are expanding to keep pace with a growing industry and rising demand, fueled by better-tasting varieties and a recovering economy.
Early production: Farmers put in up to five times as many early plants as they did last year. That incurs more costs for growers but encourages an early market switch from California berries to Florida's crop. Sunshine State strawberries should be available through March and into early April.
Labor shortages: With other states enacting stricter immigration laws, migrant workers in Florida seem to be in shorter supply, too. Chalk it up to the fear factor, said Gary Wishnatzki of Wish Farms: More migrant workers may be returning to their native countries, with not enough skilled workers to take their places. It's a common theme across the United States that started affecting local farmers at the end of last season.
Marketing strategies: Look for a square pattern on strawberry labels. Smartphone users can scan those QR codes to trace their berries, learn what variety they're tasting and watch videos from the farms that grew the fruits. That's a new feature introduced this year at Wish Farms, piggybacking on the increasingly popular industrywide technology that allows consumers to trace their carton of berries back to the fields.