On the first morning of the fair, fog filled the fields. Pickers couldn't see the ends of their rows.
So they sat in the damp sand, waiting for the sun to break through and dry the strawberries.
Today, the boss had told them, pick only the perfect berries. He had promised to pay $3 for every 12 pounds they picked — twice the going rate.
Only the best fruit would make it to the 77th Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City.
"These aren't going to make us any money," Gary Wishnatzki told his farm manager. But in a dismal year for growers, he wasn't in it for a profit. Going to the fair was just a way to promote his brand and survive until next year.
Wishnatzki's family has been selling Florida strawberries since 1922. His grandfather trucked them to New York in the '30s. In the '50s, his dad and all the other kids in town got out of school to harvest the ripe, red berries. Wishnatzki, 56, got into the business in 1980 and now oversees Wish Farms Inc., the state's largest shipper of fresh strawberries. His fruit is sold at Publix, Food Lion and Fresh Market.
Today is the last day of the Strawberry Festival, which brings 500,000 people to Plant City annually. Normally, Wishnatzki loves this time of year, but this winter he has had trouble sleeping. The warm winter has meant a surplus of strawberries, causing prices to fall. Competition from Mexico has squeezed Wishnatzki's growers even more. He fears they won't break even, won't be able to plant a crop next season.
"This season, the tide is out for everyone," said Wishnatzki. "If we get another year like this, there it will definitely put farmers out of business."
By 8 a.m. on the fair's opening day, the fog started to fade. Workers shouldered cardboard trays lined with green plastic baskets and fanned out across 35 acres. When the festival opened at 10, Wishnatzki wanted his best berries to greet everyone at Gate 1.
• • •
More than 10,000 acres of strawberries bloom on the fields surrounding Plant City. This year, the growers association predicts, the plants will produce more than 200 million pounds — a 10 percent increase over last year. The bounty is shipped across the country, to Connecticut and St. Louis, as far north as Nova Scotia.
Fruit picked in the fields on a Thursday can show up in a Chicago supermarket by Saturday.
Strawberry sales will total about $400 million this year, said Ted Campbell, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association. The economic impact on the area, he estimates, is more than twice that.
"Everyone around here is tied to strawberries," he said. "Businesses that produce plastic for the fields, tractors, tires, trailers, boxes, pallets, coolers. …The industry has a huge ripple effect."
Strawberries have always provided an income — and an identity — for Plant City. In 1886, when Henry Plant brought his South Florida railroad here, locals renamed the town in his honor. And farmers started sending boxcars of berries to Philadelphia, New York and Boston.
The community sprouted among the berry fields. For years, Plant City has called itself the winter strawberry capital of the world. Every business boasts something strawberry.
At the Whistle Stop Café, a weathered plaque on the wall urges: Pick your own strawberries. The billboard at Plant City Tire & Auto has a strawberry perched over a wrench, dripping chocolate through a tire. Even the First Baptist Church sign includes a blood red berry clinging to the cross.
"Oh, we put strawberries on everything around here," said Dwight Williams, who owns Plant City Rock & Gravel. His company doesn't have anything to do with strawberries. But its logo features a strawberry shaped like a heart.
On the edge of Plant City, Parkesdale Farm Market welcomes 24 tour buses a day. Visitors from Ohio and Indiana line up to feast on strawberry shortcake and milk shakes they saw featured on the Food Network. Instead of buying one flat of berries, employee Xiomara Meeks said, most people are purchasing two "because the price is so low" — $11.95 per flat instead of $15.
"It's been a great year for consumers, but a really difficult one for the farmers," said Matt Parke, who manages 135 acres at Parkesdale Farm. "California used to be our major competitor, but they never had our early winter crop. Now it's hard to get the money because Mexico is harvesting such huge acreage."
What if the winters keep warming and Mexico keeps exporting cheaper crops and prices keep plunging and local farmers can no longer compete?
"Smaller farms are starting to plant more squash and cucumbers," Parke said.
But no one wants to put a pickle on the Baptist church sign.
• • •
While field workers picked through the emerald plants that Thursday, Wishnatzki drove to a packinghouse he calls Paradise.
Three winters ago, Wishnatzki started leasing the warehouse to juice strawberries, and converted his old packinghouse to another juicing plant nearby.
This year, for the first time, he is running two shifts. Every evening, after the day workers are done, another 28 people show up to remove the stems, pour the berries onto a long conveyor belt, and bottle the slushy mixture of berries and sugar. The 30-pound containers will help make ice cream and yogurt, daiquiris and doughnuts, smoothies at Starbucks.
The liquid version doesn't bring nearly as much money as whole berries. But it lasts longer and can be frozen. So it's a way to save thousands of berries from rotting in the fields.
"Normally, we don't start juicing until after the festival, late March at the earliest," Wishnatzki said. "But this year, we started juicing in December."
Wish Farms sold 10 million pounds of strawberry slush last year. This year, he said, it will bottle at least 13 million pounds. "We've got to find ways to help growers cut their losses."
About 11 a.m., he headed back to his office to wait for that morning's berries — and check the weather in Zamora, Mexico. Florida's mild winter made local berries ripen early, he said, and there were too many of them — about 3,000 more acres than last year. But western Mexico also enjoyed unseasonably warm temperatures, which meant the foreign crop was ready at the same time.
This is the first year that Mexican fruit has taken a bite out of Florida's market, Wishnatzki and other farmers said.
"I'd guess their production is up about 50 percent," he said. "A lot of large California companies are growing in Mexico because the land and labor are so much cheaper. There's no tariff on their exports to help us compete. And this year, instead of having to unload their fruit at the border, Mexican trucks are allowed to drive right into the U.S., which hurts even more."
As of March 3, Mexico had shipped 111.8 million pounds of strawberries into the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture — a 31 percent increase over last year. Grocery chains are buying the foreign product because it's cheaper, said Wishnatzki. "Which is pushing the price down for everyone."
This time last year, growers were getting about $15 wholesale for 12 pounds of strawberries. This month, Wishnatzki said, he is hoping to pull in about $8. Farmers need to earn $7 per flat just to break even.
He slid behind his desk, logged onto his computer and shook his head. South of the border, the weather was still warm and dry. Perfect for strawberries.
• • •
Mexican strawberries have even crept onto grocery shelves in the world's winter strawberry capital. Many people in Tampa Bay don't know that those berries spent three or more days in a truck before they landed beside fruit picked in Plant City that morning.
Hillsborough County farmers are trying to compete by letting shoppers know that their product is local.
Two years ago, Wishnatzki rebranded his produce, dropping the last half of his name to become Wish Farms. A marketer helped create a pixie logo with a wand and slogan, "Granting Sweet Wishes since 1922." Wishnatzki hired his 26-year-old daughter to push his product on Facebook and other social networks. He added a label to every carton sold from his 12 growers: "How's my picking?" People can use their smartphones to see what farm the berries came from and who picked them. Online videos introduce shoppers to each farmer.
This time of year, when so many folks are in town for the festival, "it's important for everyone to know which berries were grown by their neighbors," Wishnatzki said, "to see what we're doing right here."
• • •
The berries were late. Two hours after the fair gates opened, a flatbed truck pulled up to the loading docks at Wish Farms' warehouse. "Here they come," Wishnatzki called. "Finally."
He lifted off a plastic bin and pulled out a berry as big as his palm. It was firm and scarlet and warm. Too warm. He told his foreman, "Take these into the cooler and chill them down for a while."
Outside Gate 1 at the festival, tables beneath the yellow tent were empty. But Wishntazki wouldn't sell fruit that might get mushy in the afternoon heat. He would rather wait, lose a few sales, and put out the best product he could provide.
At noon, workers rolled the chilled berries from the cooler, loaded 100 flats onto forklifts, then slid them back onto the truck. Wishnatzki helped steady the stacks, then followed his fruit to the fair.
Trucks were lined up selling strawberry pizza, strawberry soda, strawberry cookies and shish kebabs and tacos. A lifesize strawberry strolled through the crowd. Children's chins were stained with sticky red juice; parents waited in looping lines to make their own shortcake.
Wishnatzki carried four flats of berries from the truck to the Wish Farms tent, where half a dozen people were waiting, most likely unaware of the hard times for growers but eager for cheap, sweet berries. At the edge of the tent, a man called, "Are those fresh?"
"Just picked this morning," said Wishnatzki.
The man, Art Guillette, made his way to the table. His eyes widened as he approached the big, scarlet berries.
"My wife and I are from Connecticut. We'll probably eat all these before we get home," said Guillette, 69. So he bought another tray to take back North and turn into jam. "Just $9?" he asked. "Wow. I'll be back next year."
Wishnatzki smiled, shook the stranger's hand and said, "I hope to see you then."
Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Lane DeGregory can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8825.