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Florida strawberry farmers cautiously optimistic

DOVER

There was that terrible winter.

The cold, sleepless night after night spent outside in the dirt, sucking water from the earth in a Hail Mary attempt to keep those little red berries alive.

When it was finally over, the ground opened up. Sinkholes and dry wells and angry neighbors dogging the wounded farmers. Talk of restrictions and rules.

And then, to top off last year's already depressing local strawberry season, too many cold-shocked blooms birthed too many berries too late and profits went in the tank.

Now, more than ever, the farmers need a good year.

"We've had good weather, we have good plants, we're off to a great start," said farmer Gary Wishnatzki at one of his Wish Farms fields in Plant City last week.

He leaned over to a little white bloom in the middle of 40 acres of rows.

"See? Look at that," Wishnatzki said.

Soon, this pretty little flower will become a tiny green nub. Give it time and water and more of this lovely mild weather, and it'll be just about ready for a hunk of shortcake and a dollop of whipped cream.

The first crop should come out of the ground by December. Picking will continue about twice a week until March, yielding millions of berries.

Barring unforeseen, catastrophic cold, of course.

"I'm very optimistic at this point," Wishnatzki said.

He's not the only one.

Ted Campbell, director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association, said farmers across the industry are looking forward to what's shaping up to be a favorable harvest, based on early weather predictions.

Last year's wet and cold El Nino pattern is now giving way to a La Nina season, which means drier and more mild temperatures, according to the National Weather Service in Ruskin.

"We need it this year," Campbell said. "We paid our toll last year."

He's talking about the most devastating freeze in recent memory.

Eleven straight nights of below-freezing temperatures in January forced Dover and Plant City farmers to pump billions of gallons of groundwater to cover berries with a protective layer of ice.

The process works pretty well during a typical two- to three-day Florida freeze event, but last January, the cumulative effects of all the farmers watering for more than a week dropped the aquifer by 60 feet, leading to dozens of sinkholes and hundreds of dried-up wells.

"Last year was the complete anomaly," Campbell said. "But you know, it opens your eyes."

It's hard to estimate exactly how much money the farmers lost, but they all groan a little when asked.

"I'll tell you what, there was a lot of bills left laying on the table," said Carl Grooms, of Fancy Farms in Plant City.

"I wouldn't want to put a figure on it," said Billy Simmons, of Simmons Farms in Plant City.

Residents around the farms weren't too happy either after sinkholes threatened an Interstate 4 exit, swallowed a mobile home and temporarily closed an elementary school.

The Southwest Florida Water Management District, known as Swiftmud, responded with several proposed rule changes, which, if approved, will define a water-use caution area in Dover and Plant City where officials could set limits on aquifer draw-downs and new water applications. The standards would also push farmers to adopt alternative frost protection tools, such as ground covers or rainwater retention ponds.

The goal is to reduce water use during frosts and freezes by 20 percent in 10 years.

Swiftmud's governing board delayed a vote on the changes until its next meeting Dec. 14.

Decision or not, many farmers are already getting ready.

Grooms said this year he'll use his tailwater recovery ponds, which collect rainwater for irrigation.

He has had them on his 210 acres for a while now, but he generally just pumps water from the ground if he needs it. This year Grooms wants to see how well the ponds work.

Joe Gude, of Brandon Farms, said he'll try the insulating ground cover. But he said he's mostly doing it because he "feels the pressure." Gude's not convinced the costly ground cover is a viable solution.

"And then what if it doesn't get cold? You just wasted all this money," he said.

Still, he knows something needs to change. He said even though another devastating freeze is unlikely, farmers should be better prepared next time.

"I get it. I understand," Gude said. "I live here, too."

Maybe, though, the farmers' instincts will serve them and they won't need the protections. Maybe La Nina will save the day. Maybe good old Florida weather won't let them down.

They all use the O-word: optimistic.

But any farmer will tell you, you just never know.

"I know one thing for certain," Grooms corrected. "We got started. We got our crop in the ground."

Contact Kim Wilmath at (813) 661-2442 or kwilmath@sptimes.com.

Though the "Strawberry Festival" is still the most widely planted strawberry variety, many farmers are trying out a new breed this season. It comes in earlier than the festival, and it's supposedly plumper, too.

"It's a real good looking berry," said farmer Joe Gude.

Plus, "They say it tastes good," said farmer Carl Grooms.

Meet "Radiance."

Created by scientists from the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, the new berry is a cross between the quick-to-fruit "Winter Dawn" and the unnamed but apparently very attractive FL 99-35 breed.

Radiance was born weighing about 22 grams. Smooth, firm and juicy.

Winter Dawn and daddy no-name must be so proud.

Florida strawberry farmers cautiously optimistic 11/25/10 [Last modified: Thursday, November 25, 2010 3:30am]
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