(Dec. 10) Florida’s first strawberry crop will hit peak volumes around Christmas, and although the predominant variety’s fruit is small, shippers expect ideal temperatures to hurry maturity along and avoid last year’s debacle caused by inclement weather.

Temperatures in the Plant City/Dover area, where the state’s strawberry production is based, have ranged between the high 40s and the 70s, said Chip Hinton, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association, Plant City.

As of Dec. 6, shipments trailed last year’s volumes to date by 340,000 pounds, but shippers said that could be attributed to fewer early varieties being planted. They expect volumes to progress steadily through the peak shipping month of March. By late March, shipments rapidly decline as California production increases.

Prices were in the low $20s, shippers reported, but they said f.o.b.s will probably drop into the teens as Christmas approaches and volumes increase.

On Dec. 8, flats of 12 1-pint baskets of medium and medium-large fruit were $22.90-24.90, and flats of eight 1-pound containers were the same, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

At the same time, the same containers from southern California were $24.90-26.90, the USDA reported.

According to the department, growers received an average of $1.65 per pound of strawberries in November, compared to $1.08 a year ago and $1 in October.

Last year, low temperatures plagued the Florida season. The situation was compounded by California having near-perfect weather, effectively shutting down Florida shipments several weeks early. Season-end volumes reached only 79 million pounds, compared to 114.6 million pounds in 2002.

“Heat in October stressed the plants, and then November turned quite cold,” said Gary Wishnatzki, president of Wishnatzki Farms, Plant City. “Our production was slowed considerably. At the same time, California had perfect weather and their crop was accelerated. By virtue of that, prices were affected and stayed low, so we had the double whammy of low prices and low production.”

Wishnatzki said his company’s first berries were packed in mid-November, but volumes amount to only a few pallets at a time. If current weather patterns hold, shippers will be busy before Christmas.

“I think the season’s been going nearly perfect, and we’ve had ideal growing conditions, not too cold and not too hot,” he said. “Plants are responding well, with a lot of nice fruit.”

About half of Florida’s production is in the strawberry festival variety, Hinton said, and shippers report the berry’s size is small this early in the season.