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early bloomers

Under a vivid blue afternoon sky, grower Chris Brock stopped to admire a row of his strawberries. He pulled aside the green leaves poking out of the black plastic to reveal a handful of berries. Some were deep red and nearly full size. Others were still small green pebbles. There were nearly a dozen strawberries on Brock's plants. It was only November. "We've already picked close to 800 flats," said Brock, 29, the head farmer at Trapnell Farms in Plant City. "That's unheard of before Thanksgiving."

All of the berries Brock picked are the Winter Dawn strain. This year, he dedicated 25 of his 80 acres to the variety. Winter Dawn, developed to bloom early in Florida's cool winters, is giving area farmers nearly an extra month of harvest time.

Florida is the major supplier of the nation's winter strawberries. During the winter, Florida growers can get as much as $18 for a flat of fresh berries. But by spring, California strawberries sneak across the country, knocking the farmers' take down to as little as $3 a flat.

"For Florida, earliness is really important," said Craig Chandler, professor of horticulture at the University of Florida's Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Balm and developer of the Winter Dawn.

After seven years of testing and development, the berry hit grocery shelves two seasons ago.

The Florida Strawberry Growers Association is totaling the number of acres devoted to the different strawberry varieties. Still, it's too early in the season to tell how many growers planted Winter Dawn. Chandler estimates that only a half-dozen growers in the eastern Hillsborough area are growing the variety. He says that many farmers might be reluctant to try something new when they already have a combination of berry varieties that work.

As far as strawberries go, the Winter Dawn is medium in size and consistency. It's a lighter red than other varieties.

But how does it taste?

"It's a good berry to slice up and put on your cereal with some sugar," said Julie Chandler, director of marketing at the Florida Strawberry Growers Association and daughter of Craig Chandler.

Julie Chandler, a self-proclaimed connoisseur of strawberries, says her favorite is the Festival variety.

The Festival, the dark red star of the Florida strawberry circuit, accounts for 60 percent of the planted acreage in Dover and Plant City. The Festival takes over when the weather warms up and the Winter Dawn doesn't fare as well.

The Festival is also Brock's favorite. But he gives the Winter Dawn its proper credit.

"I've noticed in comparison to years past that it has a higher sugar content," Brock said of this year's Winter Dawn.

Jeremy Burris, a salesman for Wishnatzki Packing House in Plant City, thinks the Winter Dawn will be available to consumers early this month.

The strawberries that shoppers bought last week were most likely the last batch from California. It will be too cold to grow the strawberries there now.

Helen Anne Travis can be reached at 661-2439, or htravis@sptimes.com.

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