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Florida strawberries take root in Middle East, rest of world

Florida strawberries are bred to do what other strawberries can't.

They endure a harsh climate and grow during the winter, despite fewer daylight hours and the looming threat of frost.

They are tough enough to make long trips in the back of a truck when they are shipped throughout the country.

And they can be grown in great volumes on small parcels of land.

"We're the torture test of the world for strawberries," said Ted Campbell, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association. "If we can make a berry grow in the Florida climate, it's good to go anywhere."

In the past few years, Florida strawberries have been growing — and making millions — in the Middle East, where there is a large demand for such a high-value, robust crop.

Royalties from Florida strawberry plants sold in Middle Eastern countries, including Turkey, Egypt and Iraq, help fund the strawberry breeding program at the University of Florida and other research and development.

"Strawberries fit in very nicely in that Middle Eastern climate," Campbell said.

They are a popular product there, and can survive the drive to markets across bumpy country roads without getting too bruised, he said.

Unlike in the United States, Mideast farmers don't have the luxury of spreading out and moving their crops around in large fields, Campbell said. They have limited space, which makes strawberries the perfect crop for them.

After the Iraq war, USAid, a humanitarian branch of the government that promotes economic development in other countries, partnered with the growers association to bring strawberry farming to Iraq, Campbell said.

"They don't grow to our standards, but it's better than nothing," he said.

In order to be a world leader in the strawberry market, teaching other countries new growing standards is next on the to-do list.

Mehmet Ozmen, a 29-year-old strawberry farmer from Silifke, Turkey, spent eight weeks last summer in Plant City learning about different technology and sanitation practices.

He said his company, SBR Agriculture, sends someone to another country every year to learn about technological advancements in strawberry farming.

"I wanted to see the difference in strawberry business and improve my knowledge about growing strawberries, cooling and marketing," he said in an email.

Campbell, who let Ozmen stay at his house, said he made sure Ozmen also spent time studying different environmentally friendly procedures and field sanitation practices.

"That's really what I wanted him to get a grasp of," Campbell said.

Among the berry varieties grown on Ozmen's farms in Turkey are two of Florida's most popular: Strawberry Festival and Florida Radiance. Both were developed with UF in Hillsborough County.

"Festival is the one that put us on the map," Campbell said. "Prior to that, we were just a niche. Festival became a huge mainstream variety."

The Florida Strawberry Festival, which really took off in the past five years or so, gave Florida strawberry growers credibility in foreign markets, Campbell said.

They proved they could develop something that not only tastes good but can also be a viable crop somewhere other than Florida.

"Now, when we come out with a new variety, (farmers) are anxious to get it," Campbell said.

That's not to say Florida farmers and berries do not have any competition in the market.

In the past two years, Mexico has emerged as a major competitor for Florida farmers. And even growers in the Middle East, who ship berries as far away as Russia, compete with farmers in Morocco.

Still, though, Campbell said, the growers association is aggressively marketing Florida berries on the international stage, and the market overseas is constantly growing.

"The whole world is the marketplace now," Campbell said.