DOVER — At a farm in late February, Sue Harrell is talking about Florida strawberries, which are thriving right now despite a too-hot start to their season.
Harrell, director of marketing for the Florida Strawberry Growers Association, kneels down until she’s even with a row of plants dotted with the bright red jewels, picks one off and sinks her teeth into it.
This is the “Sweet Sensation,” a variety being tested in the 10-acre Florida Strawberry Research and Education Foundation field behind the association’s event center. The goal? To create the perfect strawberry.
Florida is No. 2 in strawberry production behind California, and the 65 growers and more than 10,000 acres that make up the Florida Strawberry Growers Association are responsible for a lot of that produce. March is the fruit’s best month, even this season, when a warm December threatened the crop.
Harrell spends her days getting the word out about the state’s berries, the majority of which are grown in the Plant City area. She is full of facts about strawberries you likely don’t know, her ultimate goal to educate people about the fruit cultivated right here in the Tampa Bay area.
“Strawberries are an impulse buy,” Harrell said. “A banana you buy every week. For some reason, strawberries are different. We would love to be the banana.”
Here are 10 facts about strawberries, from when they grow to where they go after they are picked, that might surprise you.
1. A handful of strawberries contains more potassium than a banana.
Just eight strawberries contain the daily requirement for vitamin C, and more potassium than a banana. Another fun fact: There are about 200 seeds on a strawberry. Since they're on the outside, strawberries are an outlier in the berry family, and technically not even considered a berry, which typically has seeds on the inside.
2. Color isn’t everything.
Redder strawberries do not necessarily mean sweeter strawberries. Harrell said that as long as the berry is fully colored, it's ripe and ready to eat.
"Consumers need to be on the look-out for shiny berries. And the green top, which is called a calyx, it needs to look fresh, too," Harrell said.
3. Not all berries are the same.
There are many different varieties cultivated in the association's test fields, including the Winterstar and Radiant. The Sweet Sensation berry that Harrell tasted is currently being held up as a model berry, and a benchmark going forward. The goal is to identify positive attributes — like appearance, taste and ability to withstand certain weather conditions — and work them into future varieties to create the best berry possible. Harrell said this variety isn't perfect, but it's a step in the right direction.
"The Sweet Sensation has the color, it has the shape, it travels well," she said. "This is like a four-bite strawberry. And when you take a bite, it's going to be sweet, even if it's not super red."
4. Florida strawberries grow in the winter.
The growing season runs from about Thanksgiving to Easter (typically the end of March). Planting begins in October, and harvesting begins in mid-November. Harrell said most people are surprised to learn it's during winter, but Florida's moderate temperatures provide an ideal climate.
This season has been a bit funky. Because it was so warm in December, a lot of fruit came in early, then stopped growing for a while.
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"There was a large gap — two to three weeks of the plant sitting there without producing," Harrell said.
Now, the plants are producing like normal. March is usually the best month for Florida strawberries, and the point at which they're most affordable to consumers.
"At this point in the season, there is no shortage. They're picking a lot of berries right now."
5. Most of our berries leave the state.
For the most part, strawberries picked on commercial farms in the Tampa Bay area are sold to supermarkets, as opposed to local markets. Even more leave the state.
"Most of our fruit travels up the East Coast to those markets," Harrell said. "We used to say 80 percent but now it's like 70 percent, because we do have large retailers here that handle a lot of our fruit."
6. Berries are picked right into their plastic containers.
When Florida strawberries are picked, they go right into the plastic clamshell container in which they are sold. After being picked, they're taken to a cooling facility, because, as Harrell said, "strawberries and heat don't mix." But they're not handled much beyond that before you buy them, which reduces the risk of food-borne illness.
7. Strawberries have a fast turnaround.
When you see Florida strawberries in the grocery store, chances are they are pretty fresh. Strawberries usually have to be sold the same day they get to the store. And often, berries are shipped out from the farms the same day they are picked, Harrell said. That means a turnaround of about four days, from their farm to your cart.
8. Leave berries whole and unwashed when storing them at home.
The best way to keep your strawberries from spoiling quickly is to leave them unwashed when you first bring them home. Harrell said the ideal storage vessel is in fact their plastic container, because it is well ventilated, so your best bet is to leave them in there. Pop them in the fridge, because heat and humidity causes them to go bad quicker. And wash them just before you're ready to eat them.
9. The plants produce a lot.
One strawberry plant can be picked about 50 to 60 times a season, or about once every three days. It takes about 35 to 40 days for a bloom to turn into a berry. How do the plants constantly produce so much fruit? All of the blooms on the plants are in different stages. So when one red berry is picked, there are a couple of buds next to it that will be ready in a few weeks.
10. Prices, not fruit supply, determine the end of the season.
Many times, it's not for lack of fruit that local farms stop selling their berries to supermarkets. Harrell said many fields end up with leftover fruit that can't be sold because it's no longer marketable.
"If the market price falls below harvest cost, we have to stop picking. It's not because the plants run out of fruit. They'll continue to produce," Harrell said. This usually happens later this month, when we get warmer weather and more rain. That's when the California berries start to populate local stores.
When this happens, many local fields will open their doors to the public and the fields become “U-Pick,” meaning anyone can go and pick berries directly from the plants. Harrell said there often isn’t much advance warning, so when farms become available for U-Pick, it’s best to go as soon as possible. Plants blooming now will yield berries at the end of March.