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Three cheers for the very, merry strawberry

PLANT CITY — Singing sisters, harmonizing brothers and Oreo-chasing pigs.

Magic shows and milking shows.

A hall of fame football player and a hall of fame rock band. A classic country diva and a young diva who only sings classic country. Christian rap and country rap. Golden boys and gold-colored robots. Get-down R&B and get-up gospel.

I could go on. The question isn't, "What can you find at the 2016 Florida Strawberry Festival?"

No, it's, "What can't you find."

This year's 11-day celebration will take fans from country legend Charley Pride to R&B legend Charlie Wilson, from Nathan Osmond to his more famous aunt and uncle, Donny and Marie. The fest's ever-expanding entertainment acts — which includes Cheap Trick, one of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's newest inductees — are almost enough to make you forget what's at the center of this celebration.

Almost.

It's the strawberry, folks. And while that seems so blatantly obvious, we can't go any further without offering proper homage to the very merry berry that has sparked this annual showcase since 1930.

Sure, we love the strawberry shortcake and the strawberry pizza and the strawberry pie and the strawberry cheesecake. But we love how the strawberry defines our community even more.

When interns arrive at the Tampa Bay Times from some far-flung Midwestern college, we make it a point to introduce them to the native foods: the Cuban sandwich, the grouper sandwich, the deviled crab and, of course, the strawberry milkshake.

When winter freezes threaten the strawberry crop, we watch the thermometer with baited breath while growers man the fields with frosty breath. We worry about the livelihood of the farmers, the lifeline of the fruits and how we would ever carry on if this corner of the county stopped serving as the winter strawberry capital of the world.

Could it happen?

Being unwise about the ways of the strawberry, I thought this unseasonably warm winter favored the farmers. No bitter cold mornings seemingly translated to no bitter berries.

Not quite.

The winds of El Nino has made this another difficult season, a common refrain in recent years given the combination of challenges that includes unfavorable weather, labor strife, competition from California and Mexico and high supply.

Some say Plant City will be strawberry fields forever, but I'm praying that one of these years the growers will have the super season they so richly deserve.

So when we come to the festival to cheer on music stars and marvel over midway rides, let's also cheer on the farmers who have toiled through sour seasons to give us sweet memories.

Let's make sure our local stores continue to sell our local berries. Let's advocate for the growers at city council, county center, the state capital, the halls of Congress and the White House.

Let's not risk the festival losing its biggest star and the area losing its most defining characteristic. Strawberries can't sing, dance or jump for joy, but without them, we would struggle to do all of those things every March.

That's all I'm saying.

>>If you go

Florida Strawberry Festival

The festival at 303 N Lemon St. begins its 11-day run on March 3 with all things strawberry (shortcake, pie and even pizza) as well as midway rides, free entertainment on various stages and headline entertainment on the Wish Farms Stage. Gates open at 10 a.m. daily and the midway opens at noon March 3, March 4 and March 8-11. Midway opens at 10 a.m. on weekends and on March 7. Admission is $10, $5 ages 6 to 12, 5 and younger free. Concert tickets extra. For more information, call (813) 752-9194 or see the Tampa Bay Times' Florida Strawberry Festival special section in Friday's paper.

Three cheers for the very, merry strawberry 02/25/16 [Last modified: Thursday, February 25, 2016 2:46pm]
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