PLANT CITY — Fan blades whirred at the open-air Parkesdale Farm Market on a scorching hot day in September. Co-owner Jim Meeks had installed the large fans this summer to cool customers as they ordered milkshakes flavored with Plant City’s famous strawberries.
Smaller fans blew air onto employees working the counter. Meeks sometimes found them seeking more relief in the walk-in freezer.
“Without question, this is the hottest summer I’ve felt,” he said.
Temperature recordings show he was right. While communities across the Tampa Bay area broke heat records this summer, Plant City incinerated them. For nine infernal days in August, for instance, temperatures sizzled between 103 and 104 degrees — the hottest in the city’s recorded history.
Plant City’s weather has been tracked for about 130 years, and those records show a steady climb in temperature, which weather experts attribute not just to climate change but also to development, as roads and rooftops heat up more than the fields and forests they replace.
If temperatures continue to rise and Plant City endures longer and hotter summers like this year’s, the last of the town’s precious crop ― strawberries ― may have to be grown somewhere else.
Heat’s threat to “winter strawberry capital of the world”
Florida winters are weather nirvana for strawberries, and Hillsborough County in particular hits the sweet spot of mild and cool during the harvesting season, which generally runs from November to April.
Hillsborough leads the state in strawberry production, according to the University of Florida. Last year, the county was expected to produce about 11,000 acres of strawberries — about a third of the size of Walt Disney World.
Other regions, such as California and Mexico, can’t make it work as easily that time of year, which gives Hillsborough strawberry growers months to perch atop the market. It’s why growers call Plant City the “winter strawberry capital of the world.”
But a study published by the Environmental Defense Fund in May predicts that rising temperatures could threaten those ideal weather conditions.
Models show that warmer temperatures are likely to extend past summer months and bleed into the strawberry planting season, which could become dangerous for the delicate fruit.
The report, “Understanding Climate Change Impacts on Florida Strawberries,” forecasts that the average high temperature in Hillsborough County, now 78 degrees, will tick up by about 0.4 degrees every decade.
“Basically, one of the things that’s needed for successful strawberry growth is you can’t have a number of days over 85 degrees,” said Dawn Shirreffs, the Environmental Defense Fund’s Florida director. “We refer to those days as ‘killing days.’”
Models predict there will be a more than 50% increase in days over 85 degrees by midcentury, Shirreffs said. These days are likely to be in the early part of the season, which would set back times when it’s safe to plant strawberries, and could push back profitable harvest days that now occur around February.
By midcentury, strawberry farmers in Hillsborough County will lose about 11% of their yield and about 10% of their net income per acre, the study predicts.
The report also says the future of strawberries in Florida could be somewhere else. By 2050, Marion County, more than 100 miles north of Plant City, will experience temperatures similar to what Hillsborough County enjoys now.
Strawberry farmers who spoke to the Tampa Bay Times say they aren’t alarmed by predictions of rising heat.
“We guys in agriculture just take the elements of nature as they come and try to work with them,” said Carl Grooms, 74, an owner of Fancy Farms in Plant City. “And trying to predict out that ‘Oh, we ain’t gonna be able to grow ‘em’ — we try to not even put that in our vocabulary.”
Matt Parkes, the director of operations at Parkesdale Farms, a 550-acre strawberry farm in Dover, said he doesn’t think this summer was any hotter than past years. And if Plant City and the areas around it are getting hotter, he said farmers are tinkering with strawberry varieties that are more resistant to the heat.
“We’re constantly breeding new varieties of berries to sustain where we’re at,” Parkes said.
He said if strawberry farmers are forced out of Plant City and East Hillsborough, it will be because of population growth and development, not the heat. Hillsborough added the second-highest number of residents in Florida — more than 230,000 — in the past decade.
“We’re running out of room. Eventually we will be pushed out for housing, but we will continue to farm,” Parkes said. “We’ll just have to figure out where that’s going to be at in Florida.”
Paul Close, a senior meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Tampa Bay office, says the urbanization Parkes mentioned, along with climate change, has likely contributed to Plant City getting hotter.
Daytime high temperatures in Plant City have increased by about 2 degrees over the last 130 years, while nighttime temperatures have ballooned close to 4 degrees.
Nighttime temperatures are particularly telling. When there are open green spaces, heat can escape at night. However, buildings, especially in compact areas, block that process. Even agriculture, while not native to the land, can cool areas more effectively than hard surfaces, said Emily Powell, an assistant state climatologist at the Florida Climate Center at Florida State University.
In the mid-1970s, farmland in Hillsborough County accounted for more than 350,000 acres, according to agriculture records. That number has shrunk to nearly half, around 180,000 acres.
“I think a lot of people have a misconception that Plant City is a place where the banjos play and we’re doing bull riding contests every other day,” said Ed Verner, a longtime developer in the town and a founder of the Plant City Photo Archives & History Center.
“60 years ago, we were a lot more agriculturally centered than we are now — we still have it in our soul. … And yet we are an honest-to-God city,” he added. “Plant City has a lot more rooftops and a lot more asphalt on it now than it did this time 30 years ago, that’s for sure.”
Plant City’s scorching summer
As strawberry farmers geared up for growing season, Plant City residents endured a summer in which temperatures ran about 3.4 degrees above normal, a striking number to weather experts.
In the downtown district on a steamy September afternoon, shoppers and merchants disagreed about whether it was the hottest summer ever.
Sophie Willis, 25, a barista at Krazy Kup who has lived in the town since she was a toddler, said it was the hottest she could recall. She said that, during the town’s Last Friday event, residents didn’t come out to shop until after the sun had set.
Marie Gibbs, who was working inside C & G New and Used Appliances, said it was business as usual. The store, which has stood in the same spot for decades, has never had air conditioning and that didn’t change this summer, she said.
Even the fluffy cat named Gray Girl hanging around the store’s entrance seemed unbothered.
Some found reprieve in air-conditioned stores, like the one co-owned by Lynn Haberl. Inspire! Quilting & Sewing is an “oasis for women,” Haberl said.
A group of retired women sat in the back making wallets. The store, lined floor to ceiling with vibrant, patterned fabrics, was chilly.
“Women up north quilt in the winter,” Haberl said. “Here, we quilt in the summer.”
Just a few miles from downtown, back at Parkesdale Market, fans continued their battle against the heat.
Mighty melons and shiny bell peppers formed mini mountains in crates, and a few customers braved the heat to check out the produce.
One shopper, Mary Knox, a longtime resident, had watched her plants wilt and die in the heat. As for whether it was the hottest summer ever, her air conditioning bill told the story.
“I think our electric bills have been much higher,” she said.
Meeks, the Parkesdale owner, came out of the summer OK. He sold much more ice cream and milkshakes.
By early November, good news: Customers were starting to see the season’s first strawberries in front of them, a long summer now left far behind.
“First pick yesterday,” Meeks said. “Got five flats.”