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Strawberry farmers enduring another subpar season

PLANT CITY − Strawberry growers in Plant City are having another season of ups and downs. Warmer than average temperatures and competition from Mexico brought on a rush of berries this winter.

The large volume of fruit in the marketplace "created a glut," said Gary Wishnatzki, chief executive officer of Wish Farms in Plant City. Production exceeded demand during January, driving down wholesale prices.

At the same time, Central Mexico was producing a lot of berries that were being shipped into the United States and sold in stores like Walmart. Ted Campbell, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association, wrote a letter to executives earlier this month criticizing Walmart for selling imported berries in its Plant City store.

While some hope consumers will make the distinction and buy local berries, Florida agricultural commissioner Adam Putnam echoed the desire to have stores lead the way.

"A warm winter and expanded production here and in Mexico have put downward pressure on grower returns," Putnam said in an email. "Hopefully, national retailers will stick with Florida berries while they are abundant and affordable to support local jobs and communities."

It costs more to transport the berries from Mexico to the United States, but labor and supply costs are lower for growers in Mexico.

"It's hard on the farmer because we have all these expenses and I don't see that they have the expenses we have," said Peggy Parke, owner of Parkesdale Farm in Dover.

"Even with high volumes in January this year, if Mexico wasn't involved, we would be able to move at competitive prices," said Andy McDonald, operations manager of Sweet Life Farms in Plant City and president of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association Board of Directors.

Florida already produces enough fruit to meet the demand, Campbell said.

"When a lot of Mexican fruit also hits the state market, it creates a larger oversupply situation and further depresses prices, which are already low," Campbell said.

Still, Wishnatzki thinks the Florida industry can coexist with Mexico.

"The demand for fresh berries is increasing," he said.

If consumers look for and buy Plant City strawberries, the economic effects on the region are far reaching, Campbell said, not just on farmers, but the other industries involved, like manufacturing, trucking, equipment repair, and the finance and legal aspects of the business.

"There are all kinds of ripples through the community, from the grocery stores to the gas stations," Campbell said. "There are a lot of American jobs in this community that really depend on those farmers."

Market prices have gone back up in the past two weeks. High temperatures have slowed down Mexico's production, while rain and colder temperatures has done the same for California growers that ship to eastern states.

Production in Hillsborough County has slowed down, too, but Valentine's Day is a major holiday for advertising strawberries. Parkesdale picked a lot of long-stem strawberries in particular for the holiday, Parke said.

Highs in the 70s during the day and lows in the 50s at night are ideal during the winter for strawberries. Light freezes keep the fruit firmer. If it's too warm, as it was in January and early February, the berries come on faster and flood the market. Warmer temperatures can make the berries softer, because they take in more water. They can bruise more easily when they're harvested.

Usually the heat makes the berries small, but Parkesdale's berries have been "beautiful and sweet" this year, Parke said.

Weather usually has a short-term effect, Wishnatzki said.

"If you had weather that caused quality problems, it could have a long-term effect on the market because you lose customers," he said. "Other than that, usually these little weather events are short-lived as far as effects on the market."

But too many bad years in a row can cause long-term problems because so much money is spent up-front on production and labor before the berries are even harvested, Campbell said.

"When you're selling fruit below cost, you can get along for a while, but sooner or later all the bills are due but you don't have money left," he said. "With farming it's a very unusual type of business because you pay for everything in advance."

Florida growers plant several varieties of strawberries that are harvested at different times to cover gaps in the production cycle and make up for any crop failures.

"We're kind of steady all the way through, which is what you want. Variety has definitely changed and it's help," McDonald said. But variety can be their "own worst enemy," he said.

More varieties contributed to the market flooding that drove prices down.

"This year, early was good in December, but in January, production came in at a bad time," Wishnatzki said. "That could all be different in another season."

It's too early to tell how the rest of the season will go, Campbell said. The market has been a little stronger the past two weeks, but "it's not anything to get excited about," he said.

Growers are hoping the earlier Easter on March 31 will help drive market prices back up near the end of the season. The Florida strawberry season usually lasts until California begins shipping to the East Coast again, usually in late March or early April.

Keeley Sheehan can be reached at ksheehan@tampabay.com.

Strawberry farmers enduring another subpar season 02/14/13 [Last modified: Thursday, February 14, 2013 9:53am]
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