PLANT CITY, Fla. — Though harvesting of Florida strawberries began in late November as usual, growers through early to mid-December were harvesting larger-than-normal volume.

A milder growing season coupled with increased acreage helped produce strong volume.

Wish Farms started harvesting Nov. 10, a couple of weeks earlier than normal. By early December, the grower-shipper was harvesting enough volume for retailers to conduct small promotions.

Gary Wishnatzki, president and chief executive officer, characterized quality as high.

“This is probably as good as or better of a start than what we have experienced in the past,” he said in early December.

“The weather has been good overall. The plants are off to a good start. We have had minimal problems.”

Wishnatzki and other growers called opening season prices strong.

On Dec. 5, Wishnatzki quoted flats of eight 1-pound clamshells from central Florida selling for $24.90-26.90, the price the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported in late November.

By Dec. 5, the USDA reported those same clamshells from central Florida selling for $22.90-24.90.

That’s lower than last season in mid-December when California weather problems helped increase Florida’s opening season prices to $26.90-28.90.

Doug Ranno, chief operating officer and managing partner with Colorful Harvest LLC, Salinas, Calif., said the high season prices should point to strong season markets.

“What we should see this year, even as the volume comes on, retailers will be promoting at much higher prices, because they want to hit comparable store sales,” he said.

“With the markets starting so much higher, we will see aggressive pricing at higher promotable levels. That’s good for stores because they will have more sales dollars generated from strawberry sales during peak harvest, and they should get a better allocation of labor in the stores because the typical ring on strawberries during promotable times will be higher.”

Driscoll Strawberry Associates Inc., Watsonville, Calif., began its Dover area harvesting in mid-November. 

“The season is off to a good start,” Valerie Lott, Driscoll’s director of strawberry business management, said in mid-December.

“In general, plant establishment is strong and fruit quality is great. We’re very much looking forward to a good 2011-12 season.”

Craig Casca, vice president of Red Blossom, Oxnard, Calif., which grows and ships from Plant City-based McDonald Farms, called quality high.

“The volume is starting to ramp up,” he said Dec. 12.

“It has been a little spotty up until now, but we’re getting into good volume.”

Casca said the opening of Florida’s season times perfectly with the ending of the summer and fall Santa Maria, Calif., deal.

The Dover-based Florida Strawberry Growers Association expects growers to plant nearly 11,000 acres this season, up from the 9,500 acres planted last season.

The deal should produce up to 27 million flats, up from the 23.7 million flats growers brought to market last season, said Ted Campbell, executive director.

This year’s earlier season volume should allow for New Year’s promotions and could help growers hit the Valentine’s Day window, said Chris Smith, sales manager for BBI Produce Inc., Dover.

Because low temperatures can delay fruit maturity until a day or so before the holiday, growers often miss sending volume to retailers the week before.

“If we have cold in January and February, we can miss it this year too,” Smith said.

“Without a good start, we can’t have a good finish. We need the appropriate weather to carry us through. We just need the weather to cooperate to have that good second crop that comes in time for the Valentine’s Day business.”

Steve Machell, sales manager for Dover-based Gulf Coast Produce Inc., called early season harvesting strong.

“The quality looks really good now,” he said in early December.

“Thus far, it looks to be an excellent quality crop coming on. It’s a pleasure to move this product looking that nice. It makes it a whole lot easier.”

Shawn Pollard, salesman for Astin Strawberry Exchange LLC, said the early radiance variety is producing good-sized and high-quality fruit.

“Our fruit quality looks really good,” he said in early December.

“These radiances have large fruit at 16-18 count compared to the mid-20s we normally see up front. Sometimes, those early berries have the tendency to be a little smaller. But these berries are very nice.”

Florida volume typically runs through late March with smaller volumes shipped into mid-April.