PLANT CITY — We count on them every February and March, big glossy berries, maybe with whipped cream and shortcake, maybe all by their lonesome, one frilly-capped stem at a time. Florida strawberries are a dependable harbinger of spring, but what they taste like, the price they command and just how competitive they are with strawberries from California and Mexico change dramatically year to year.
What can we expect this year? Some changes, some optimism and some uncertainty.
We tagged along in the Florida strawberry fields on a recent tour for corporate chefs and managers. Industry experts talked about this year's harvest, new plant cultivars and what the new administration in Washington might mean for Florida agricultural products.
Standing alongside a bright green John Deere tractor at the edge of his 90 acres of berries in Plant City, third-generation strawberry grower Mark Harrell said the big buzz this year is Florida 127. The new strawberry variety, or cultivar, from the University of Florida was released in 2013, marketed under the name Sweet Sensation.
Cultivars, you ask? Before we go any further, some facts about strawberry development.
Florida is fussy when it comes to growing berries. It's hot, humid and doesn't have enough "chill hours" at night to properly cosset the berries. It also has tons of pests and rain. The mixture sometimes provides a less-than-perfect environment for berries, often resulting in disappointing crops or those warty-looking berries with splits.
Scientists at UF, working in a public-private partnership involving patents, engineer berries that grow well in Florida. The go-to berry was for many years the Festival.
The Festival is hardy, sturdy and prolific, but medium-sized. Consumers and growers wanted bigger berries, and the Festival has been phased out in Florida. The Florida Radiance cultivar from UF took the throne, prized for its early season yields and high production overall, and has gone on to widespread use in western Europe. But now, the Sweet Sensation is creeping in to take over. It already accounts for 20 percent of Florida plantings.
What's so great about this new Sensation? It's all about flavor. In taste tests, consumers rave about these big, sweet berries. While they don't have quite the deep red color of the Radiance, or the lifespan of the Festival, Sweet Sensations are fragrant, sweet and lushly flavorful.
Kenneth Parker, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association, said some of the interest in marketing new cultivars by name is an effort to differentiate Florida fruit. It's about branding.
But developing them is more complicated. Scientists like Luis Osorio at the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center work with the Florida Strawberry Growers Association to develop distinctive cultivars.
"We are moving into the genomics era. Not genetically modified organisms — so far it's just technology," Osorio said. Two more cultivars will be added to the Florida lineup in the next two years, he said, one called Florida Beauty and another that thus far is only identified by number.
In a breeding program, Osorio looks for major genes that control traits and resistance to disease — some traits are more complex, controlled by hundreds or thousands of genes.
But which traits are desirable? For a grower, it's important to have high yield, resistance to damage and be easy to pick. For shippers, it's firmness or sturdiness. And for consumers, it's size, sweetness and fragrance.
The Sensation, at least thus far, seems to strike the right balance. Still, how a new variety behaves in a research facility or nursery may not be precisely how it behaves on a 90-acre farm. According to Harrell, unusual weather cycles in the past few years make it hard to effectively gauge new cultivars.
Does this new strawberry mean Florida is cued up to dominate the berry market? Not exactly.
The Florida industry is one-third the size of California's, although that state has dropped its production in recent years due to drought and the high cost of real estate. And Mexico has more total acreage than Florida.
According to Harrell, what determines our success or failure is timing. Usually Florida berries command their highest prices in late November through January, once California fruit has phased out. Competition with other markets picks up in March and April, which drives down the price.
"Peak season or highest volume is in late February, early March, but can vary from season to season," explained Harrell. "Typically, the season ends when the cost of harvesting is greater than the market price. Rarely does it end because of lack of fruit."
So when it costs more to pick the berries than they are worth, picking stops. Recent years have brought some cost-side changes.
"Our cost of doing business has skyrocketed, while the price of strawberries is the same as when I started doing business in the 1970s," Harrell said.
It's the rising cost of labor, irrigation drip systems, plastic sheeting and even the new industry-standard one-pound clear plastic clamshells. Those green mesh baskets have been phased out. Did you notice?
Adding uncertainty is President Donald Trump's suggestion that a 20 percent tax on Mexican imports could pay for the construction of a proposed border wall.
For Harrell and his 1.5 million strawberry plants, he said, the prospect of a tax could be a boon. Because of cheap labor costs, "Mexico can grow, harvest and ship at a cost that's less than it costs us just to harvest."
A tax, he said, would keep Florida products more competitively priced. On the other hand, tighter border controls and more stringent immigration policy might negatively impact Harrell's ability to harvest his fruit. With six year-round employees, he brings in 90 pickers seasonally, many of whom are from Mexico.
Harrell and Parker were reluctant to make sweeping statements about this year's harvest — in a season that is about 20 weeks long, weather and market condition can change at any time. They did say that, thus far, this season is better than last year, with steady production and yields at or above normal quality. In 2016, there was a six-week weather-related gap in production.
But while the quality of the fruit has been very good, prices have been below the normal range for this time of season.
"The last few years have been crazy," Harrell said. "People ask, 'Is this normal?' I don't know what normal is anymore."
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.