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Falling prices, fewer workers have Florida strawberry farmers doubting future

Farm worker Berna Venegas carries just picked strawberries on Fancy Farms in Plant City on Feb. 26. The berries will be sold under the Wish Farms label. [SKIP O'ROURKE | Times]
Published Mar. 1, 2015

PLANT CITY — Three aerial photographs hang on the wall of strawberry farmer Carl Grooms' office, each a testament to years of expansion.

Taking a visitor from one to the next, he begins the tour in sepia in 1974, when he bought 15 acres and set out to grow nothing but strawberries and more of them every year. It's a rosy walk through history until he returns to the present and sits down heavily at his desk beneath a mounted buck wearing a straw hat.

"I'm through. No more expanding," says the man with the bumper sticker "Farming ain't for SISSIES!"

It's strawberry season in the winter strawberry capital of the world, but Grooms is full of sighs and aggravation. After several years of unfriendly weather, falling prices, and labor shortages, he and many farmers in the region are pulling back and applying the brakes to their ambition.

For the first time in at least a decade, strawberries are losing ground. Acreage of Plant City's iconic crop, worth roughly a billion dollars annually to Hillsborough County's economy, has fallen this year to 11,000 acres, according to the Florida Strawberry Growers Association. That's about an 8 percent decline from its peak in 2014.

Though strawberry boosters say this shift is a response to modern farming techniques, which produce more berries per acre, farmers are less sanguine. None go so far as to call strawberries endangered. "Berries will always be here," Grooms says. And the town's annual celebration of all that is red and sweet, or fried on a stick, remains robust.

But as the business of growing strawberries becomes increasingly difficult, some third- and fourth-generation farmers are allowing themselves to doubt the crop's dominance.

"I could see this industry changing a lot," said Brandon Farms owner Joe Gude, who has downsized his strawberry farm to 200 acres from 457 over the past few years. "I'd like to think it's going to improve and get better, but if it continues on the path it's going, it's pretty scary."

Florida strawberry farmers have historically been able to claim the winter growing season as their own, but over the last decade, competitors in California and Mexico have encroached. The new reality, Gude says, is that Florida's window of opportunity is shrinking.

With more berries on the market, sale prices for a standard 8-pound strawberry flat this time of year are less than the cost of growing, picking and packing them. Store prices, meanwhile, are flat or slightly down compared with this time last year.

A recent bulletin from the U.S. Department of Agriculture reads like a depressed strawberry farmer's poetry: "Supply heavy. Demand very light. Market lower."

"I don't know if we're going to rise up and thrive again," Gude said. "Maybe this is the best we can expect. Or if it continues on this path, and the business crumbles, there could be just a handful of guys left to control it."

Compounded by mercurial weather, this trend of falling prices has made the last several years particularly painful. Though a few farmers have profited and expanded their acreage, others interviewed for this story have taken on increasing amounts of debt.

Grooms, who hopes to leave Fancy Farms, his 230-acre berry farm, to his son, says he is $5 million in debt. One perfect season could erase that, and this year has been significantly better than most. But after three years of losing money, he has become convinced that the only way out is to sell a third of his land. Other farmers scoff at the notion that he'll ever part with his home farm, but Grooms says he is serious.

"I've built an empire, basically, and it'd be great to leave it just like it is and let my son keep on going," he said. "But to get the financial situation in hand, it's going to have to take a sale."

Though some farmers say prices are the reason for falling acreage, others point to labor concerns. Like many in the agriculture business, strawberry farmers are increasingly fed up with current immigration laws that, they say, stand in the way of keeping a steady supply of reliable workers. Those who say they can no longer attract enough workers domestically are turning to guest-worker programs, though many regard them as dysfunctional and cost-prohibitive.

Gary Wishnatzki, the owner of Wish Farms, which maintains its own farm in Manatee County and markets other farmers' berries, said he planted fewer strawberry acres this year out of fear he wouldn't have enough laborers.

"If we planted more acres, we couldn't get them picked," he said.

Whereas it was once common to see dozens of workers, most of them Mexican immigrants, driving from farm to farm in search of work, the landscape has shifted. Mexican workers are now more likely to seek agricultural jobs in Mexico, according to Gulcan Onel, a University of Florida agricultural economist.

Pressure on farmers is coming from both sides of the border. In the United States, the current population of farmworkers is aging, and their children are looking for better-paying jobs in other fields, such as construction and service industries.

"Without sufficient numbers of workers to harvest their crops, growers in Florida might have to downsize their operations, or stop farming altogether before any new labor-saving technologies could be developed to alleviate the workforce problem," Onel wrote in an email.

Wishnatzki thinks a longer-term solution, such as mechanized strawberry picking, could arrive in as little as three years. Until that becomes a reality, he said, the labor situation is likely to worsen.

Some farmers have responded to labor concerns and falling prices by venturing into other crops, such as blueberries and cantaloupe, which ripen soon after strawberries. With a second season, the farmers have another shot at making a profit and keeping their workers in their fields for at least another month.

Others who find themselves short of workers, or facing impossibly low prices, are leaving berries to ripen longer and selling them to be processed for juice. Although they earn little this way, it's better than watching peak-season strawberries rot in the fields. Any income is welcome.

"Most growers are trying to stay the course," Wishnatzki said. "It's in people's blood, this is what they do, this is what they know. It can be profitable if things turn around."

Contact Anna M. Phillips at aphillips @tampabay.com or (813) 226-3354.

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