Gary Wishnatzki, the chief executive officer of Wish Farms, remembers the talk in the 1980s about how organic strawberries couldn't grow in Florida.
The climate wasn't right. Too many pathogens in the soil. Fungus, mites and a host of other pests make the berries vulnerable. For a while, he joined the chorus of naysayers.
"I tried it and failed miserably," said the third-generation grower and produce marketer.
But then five years ago Wishnatzki's experiment turned a corner, eking out a small profit, and now the Plant City company stands as Florida's largest producer of organic strawberries.
Of the 600 acres planted this season, more than a quarter were organically grown. In response to customer feedback and encouraged by last season's success, the company this year expanded its organic berry acreage by 20 percent.
Organic farming still poses challenges, Wishnatzki says, but at least it's making money now.
"There's a big learning curve," he said. "We're constantly tweaking the program."
Elsewhere in Florida, organic strawberry production has been slow to catch on. Despite Wish Farms' success — the company produces 90 percent of Florida's organic strawberries — most commercial operations remain in California and northern states, including New York, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont.
Here, farmers bemoan the risk of smaller yields or losing a crop altogether to pests and fungus. The berries themselves can turn out smaller, plus there's the challenge of learning how to farm without fertilizers and pesticides — in essence, figuring out how to use natural fertilizers and "good pests," instead of pesticides, to safeguard a crop.
"A lot of people would like to do it, but they can't make a dollar at it," said Ted Campbell, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association. "A lot of them who have tried have gone back to conventional growing."
Campbell said that except for Wish Farms he knows of no commercial-scale organic strawberry growers in Florida.
"There are a couple of smaller ones, but that's about it," he said.
Which is fine with Wish Farms, which grows its organic berries in Duette in northern Manatee County.
Because most Florida growers ignore the organic strawberry market, Wish Farms stands virtually alone in the market because it harvests earlier than most competitors up North and in California.
That gives the company a pricing advantage at a time when sales growth for organics is outpacing that of most conventional foods.
A study by the Organic Trade Association shows that from 2005 to 2010 total sales of conventional foods grew 19 percent, but for organics they grew 87 percent, with fruits and vegetables accounting for about 40 percent of the entire organic food market.
In practical terms, that means Wish Farms can feel comfortable asking higher prices. At some stores, consumers can be expected to pay $3 more per pound of organic berries, said marketing director Amber Kosinsky.
That's a plus in an industry known for tight margins. But getting the berries to market hasn't always been easy.
For one thing, Wishnatzki and his farm managers have had to start from scratch learning about natural fertilizers and pesticides. Then they had to wait three years before they could use them because it takes that long for soil treated with conventional pesticides and fertilizers to dry out.
As a result, Wishnatzki has had to think more carefully when it comes to his organic crop. He still farms 440 acres of conventional berries and markets another 900 acres grown by other farmers.
"Mostly its a process of trial and error and learning," he said. "The first five years we lost a lot of money. You have to be careful. There are a lot of companies selling organic products and sometimes they're selling snake oil."
Among other changes, they imported spider mites from Israel to kill off the strawberry-loving Florida mites.
The farmers had to learn when to deploy the tiny predators. Spread them too early and the spider mites can die off for lack of food. Spread them too late and the damage to the crop has already been done.
"They come in a tube," he said. "You just sprinkle them onto the plants. It's very efficient, but you have to get the timing right."
Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2454.