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Wish Farms selling strawberry farm in Plant City

Its labels may still say Plant City, but the city's oldest and best-known strawberry grower is increasingly drawing more of its crop from northern Manatee County.

Strawberry grower Gary Wishnatzki, best-known for selling berries under the Wish Farms label, is shutting down a 200-acre farm operation in Plant City and, for the next growing season, expanding a much larger operation in Duette, southeast of Sun City Center.

The decision, which comes after a tough year of low prices and heavy competition from Mexico, is a bid to improve efficiency by using more contiguous acreage. The Wishnatzki family owns about 800 acres in Duette and leases another 700 there.

"It was not a good year for growing in Florida, so we're trying to focus on the operations that have a better chance at being profitable going forward," Wishnatzki said. He said the Plant City land is under contract to sell to another grower but did not provide more details.

In connection to the sale, a partnership controlled by Wishnatzki, Trapnell Road Farms LLC, notified the state in a filing this week that it is laying off 608 workers.

Typically, farmers do not have to announce seasonal layoffs unless they are permanently closing a location. In this case, Wishnatzki anticipates that many of the affected seasonal workers will be hired in the fall at his Manatee County location or other area farms. Wish Farms employs about 2,000 people during its growing season.

Wishnatzki's grandfather, Harris, moved to Plant City in 1929 and established a farming operation that today produces about 3.5 million flats of strawberries drawn from nearly 2,000 acres. The company also grows bell peppers, squash, eggplants and tomatoes on 600 acres in Pine Island.

Wishnatzki stressed that he will continue to market strawberries for other Plant City growers. Moreover, Wish Farms is keeping its marketing operations in Plant City.

"We're still very active in Plant City," he said. "We're not going anywhere."

Plant City Mayor Mike Sparkman, who learned about the sale from the state layoff notice, said he isn't overly concerned because the farmland is being sold to another strawberry grower.

"It already has irrigation, so for another farmer to pick it up, I think it will be just fine," he said.

Moreover, given that the Plant City area still has almost 10,000 acres devoted to growing berries, Sparkman isn't worried about its reputation as the winter strawberry capital of the world.

Even though Wish Farm berries will continue to be branded "Plant City" in the supermarket, there is a way for picky berry buyers to determine the farm of origin of each container.

The clear plastic "clamshell" packages are all labeled with a 16 digit number and the FreshQC.com Web address. Once those numbers are entered online, the package of strawberries can be tracked down to the particular block in the farm field from which it came, who picked it and at what date and time.

Jeff Harrington can be reached at jharrington@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8242.

Wish Farms selling strawberry farm in Plant City 06/13/12 [Last modified: Thursday, June 14, 2012 12:15am]

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