Thursday, September 20, 2018
News Roundup

Hillsborough strawberry farmers keep one eye on ground, one eye on weather

PLANT CITY — It's that time of year again.

The plastic is down.

Strawberry farmers have spent two weeks prepping the soil and then sealing off the strawberry mounds with sheets of black plastic to lock in nutrients and antifungal chemicals.

Within the next week, most of the plants across 10,000 acres in Hillsborough County will be in the ground. By Thanksgiving, the first batch of strawberries will be ripe for the picking.

Strawberry farming is year-round work, said Ted Campbell, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association. It has an economic impact on Hillsborough of about $1 billion, he said.

The plants are grown in Canada and then shipped to Florida for planting. "They're just like all the other snowbirds that come down here for winter," Campbell said.

Once they are in the ground, farmers will water them in the afternoons to keep them cool. The plants take about 10 days to take root and then are nurtured until they start to yield fruit.

The harvesting season stretches from the end of November until the end of April.

"It's not a sprint, it's a marathon," said Andy McDonald, operations manager at Sweet Life Farms in Plant City.

It's still a bit too early to tell what kind of year this will be for strawberries.

"Every year is different. That's the first thing you learn around here," Campbell said.

All the rain this year has made it harder for the farmers to seal off the ground and nutrients before planting, Campbell said.

But rain, of course, is also a blessing. The strawberry plants need plenty of water as they take root, Campbell said.

"It's a good thing, but it's really making the soil preparation a little more challenging," he said.

McDonald said he was able to treat and seal his fields — about 135 acres — without any problems. He'll start planting this week.

His greatest challenge now is finding the labor to help him in the fields.

Because of new immigration laws in Georgia and Alabama, McDonald said he and other farmers are having trouble hiring the migrant workers they usually employ during strawberry season.

He has 70 on his payroll, which is fine for the time being, but he'll need about 200 in March and April, the height of picking season.

He knows other farmers who had trouble finding enough help to treat the soil and put the plants in the ground.

"I'm in pretty good shape compared to other farmers right now," McDonald said.

And the farmers aren't forgetting the unpredictable Florida weather in their season forecasts, McDonald said.

The past two winters have been unseasonably hot.

Warm weather last year produced a surplus of berries, which were cheap and not as good as they usually are, McDonald said.

That made it harder to keep up with Florida strawberries' newest rival: Mexico.

"We had so much bad weather, we couldn't compete with them last year," McDonald said.

The only way Florida growers can compete is to produce superior strawberries, price them competitively and encourage people to "buy American," Campbell said. Strawberry packages are always marked with the country of origin.

"The American farmer needs the help of American consumers," he said.

McDonald agreed.

"And it's going to be tough to compete with Mexico, because they're just going to get better and better," he said. "But all we can do is work hard and market better."

Despite the challenges the year may or may not bring, growers are still looking toward the coming months with a glass-half-full perspective.

"We're looking forward to a good year," McDonald said.

Comments
For starters: Rays at Blue Jays, looking to keep rolling

For starters: Rays at Blue Jays, looking to keep rolling

UPDATE, 6:36: Cash said Meadows is "a huge part" of the future and the Rays want to get a look at what he can do, but he may not get much opportunity and Cash feels Kiermaier, Pham and Smith deserve to keep playing. … RHP Yonny Chirinos is slat...
Updated: 24 minutes ago
Marijuana use is now as common among baby boomers as it is among teens, federal data show

Marijuana use is now as common among baby boomers as it is among teens, federal data show

Talk to your grandparents about marijuana - before somebody else does.The latest release of a massive federal drug use survey shows monthly marijuana use has skyrocketed among older Americans. The past decade, in fact, has seen a sea change in the de...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Texas grandma kills 12-foot gator, says she’s finally avenged her miniature horse

Texas grandma kills 12-foot gator, says she’s finally avenged her miniature horse

A Texas great-grandmother thinks she’s finally gotten revenge on the massive alligator that ate her miniature horse a few years ago.It took just one shot for Judy Cochran to dispatch the 12-foot, 580-pound gator at her ranch Sunday in Goodrich...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Carlton: Should felons who have done their time get to vote? Citizens of Florida, itís in your hands

Carlton: Should felons who have done their time get to vote? Citizens of Florida, itís in your hands

Itís not often that we citizens ó busy with work, paying the bills, living our lives ó find ourselves with the power to right a fundamental wrong.But here in Florida, weíre about to get that chance.On the November ballot ó among all those candidates ...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Booze coming to Bayshore: Tampa City Council approves historic mansionís conversion into private club

Booze coming to Bayshore: Tampa City Council approves historic mansionís conversion into private club

TAMPA ó It took 13 hours over three weeks, but developer Blake Casperís dream to convert an historic Bayshore Boulevard estate into a private club ó with booze sold until the wee hours and five rooms for overnight guests ó won City Council approval T...
Updated: 1 hour ago
NFL Week 3 picks: Our Bucs coverage team makes its predictions

NFL Week 3 picks: Our Bucs coverage team makes its predictions

Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick starts for the third straight week, the final week of the Jameis Winston suspension, against the Steelers Monday at Raymond James Stadium. Those same Steelers gave up six touchdown passes to Kansas City last week.Will Fit...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Bucs DT Vita Vea, CB Brent Grimes return to practice, could play vs. Steelers

Bucs DT Vita Vea, CB Brent Grimes return to practice, could play vs. Steelers

TAMPA — For the first time in seven weeks, Vita Vea played football Thursday.At least, it looked like he was playing football when he walked to the practice field wearing a helmet and full pads and took a three-point stance for the first time s...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Confederate group banned from Temple Terrace country club, may take legal action

Confederate group banned from Temple Terrace country club, may take legal action

TEMPLE TERRACE — After complaints from city residents, the Temple Terrace Golf & Country Club has notified the City Council that it will not rent space again to the Sons of Confederate Veterans for its annual banquet.The country clubȁ...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Former Tampa Bay exec and Chicoís CEO Shelley Broader discusses changing retail in St. Pete visit

Former Tampa Bay exec and Chicoís CEO Shelley Broader discusses changing retail in St. Pete visit

ST. PETERSBURG ó When Shelley Broader worked in Tampa Bay, she was turning around a failing grocery store.It was the early 2000s. Amazon wasnít a powerhouse yet, people were still on Myspace and no one was ordering groceries online. On Thursday, she ...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Luceroís Ben Nichols talks about the bandís 20th anniversary, Michael Shannonís intensity and more

Luceroís Ben Nichols talks about the bandís 20th anniversary, Michael Shannonís intensity and more

Ben Nichols is friendly with Michael Shannon. His brother, director Jeff Nichols, has cast Shannon in all five of his films. And the Oscar-nominated actor stars in a video ó a short film, really ó for Long Way Back Home, the new single by Nicholsí ro...
Updated: 2 hours ago