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Strawberry farmers say year good despite freeze

Simmons Strawberry Farms reflects the early January freeze. Damage from this year’s cold snap was estimated at $15-million.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

Simmons Strawberry Farms reflects the early January freeze. Damage from this year’s cold snap was estimated at $15-million.

PLANT CITY — As strawberry season winds down, growers in eastern Hillsborough County say it's been an average year.

Some farmers suffered losses during an early January freeze but others escaped major damage. Overall, damage from the January freeze was estimated at $15-million.

The losses varied across Hillsborough County, which produces about 90 percent of Florida's strawberry crop, said Florida Strawberry Growers Association president Allen Williford.

Some farmers lost plants because their overhead watering systems didn't work or didn't reach the whole field. The layer of water sprayed onto the plants protects them from freezing temperatures.

Gary Parke, a hydroponic farmer in Plant City, said he lost some plants during the freezes, so his production wasn't as high as it has been in the past.

"But it's going to be a fair year," he said.

An average crop yield for strawberries is about 20,000 flats an acre, Williford said.

Local growers sold $272.5-million worth of strawberries in 2006 — 36 percent of the county's total agricultural sales, according to a county report issued late last year. However, local growers had a banner year in 2006 because of bad weather that affected California strawberries.

Williford said the association isn't pursuing any federal disaster assistance, but two U.S. representatives from Florida are seeking money through a Farm Service Agency loan program.

Reps. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, and Adam Putnam, R-Bartow, sent a letter to the U.S. secretary of agriculture in late March, stating that the below-freezing temperatures on Jan. 1-3 destroyed about 30 percent of the strawberry crop.

They are urging a disaster declaration for Hillsborough County so affected farmers can get federal assistance, though Williford said he doubts there was enough damage to qualify for the assistance. The Farm Service Agency has not yet made a decision.

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2443.

Strawberry farmers say year good despite freeze 04/17/08 [Last modified: Thursday, April 17, 2008 4:30am]
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