Steve Machell, sales manager for Gulf Coast Produce Inc., shows off strawberries in early December. Florida strawberry grower-shippers opened their season with lighter supplies and higher prices.
Steve Machell, sales manager for Gulf Coast Produce Inc., shows off strawberries in early December. Florida strawberry grower-shippers opened their season with lighter supplies and higher prices.

PLANT CITY, Fla. — Smaller-than-normal early-season supplies are keeping demand and prices high for Florida strawberries.

While growers planned to increase production by mid-December, cool evenings kept volume low from the late November start and pushed volume back a week.

Grower-shippers aren’t expecting bigger supplies until after Christmas and into early January.

The empty pipeline and higher prices caused by California’s rough ending and Florida’s inconsistent early supplies prohibited retail promotions and made retailers eager to transition to Florida, said Shawn Pollard, salesman for Astin Strawberry Exchange LLC.

Early season prices were as high at $28.90-30 for flats of eight 1-pound clamshells.

In mid-December, prices fell slightly as the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported $26.90-28.90 for flats of medium-large from central Florida.

Last year in mid-December, the USDA reported those same flats and sizes from central Florida selling for $18.90.

Pollard said he didn’t expect growers to begin hitting their seasonal stride until the week of Dec. 29 with heavy volume predicted to commence the week of Jan. 5.

“Post-Christmas will really be our promotional time,” he said in mid-December. “We will have a big January and a big February. The season looks good and the condition of the plants is good. There’s a lot of bloom and the plants look healthy. This cold weather has made the fruit bigger and made for a more flavorful berry.”

Retailers are expressing strong demand and though the November and December cold slowed harvesting, it promoted much crown and bloom growth, said Gary Wishnatzki, president and CEO of Wish Farms.

He said he anticipates supplies to increase through late December.

Wishnatzki characterized fruit quality and taste as high and said the plants were bringing good sizes, though he said some fields haven’t seen much harvesting.

“Because of the continued cold weather, we are not picking as much as we were expecting and some orders are not getting filled, but we are still seeing a lot of fruit in the fields and expect things to pick up soon,” he said Dec. 17.

“Based on our bloom count modeling, it looks like this year will be one of our better Decembers and Januarys. Barring any unforeseen weather events, after Christmas, berries should be in plentiful supply.”

Though the season began slower than usual, in December, Colorful Harvest LLC in Salinas, Calif., was farther along in harvesting volume than in past years, said Jeremy Burris, vice president of sales and sourcing for Colorful Harvest’s Florida division.

Quality is high and the plants are producing flavorful fruit, he said in mid-December.

“The fruit has good sugar and one reason most of my growers are optimistic is that they received better plants from the nurseries than they got last year,” Burris said.

“It’s no secret Plant City’s strawberry industry has had some difficult times the past three to four years. We’re all optimistic about having a good season.”

Planted acreage is around 11,000 acres, similar to last season, and should produce around 30 million flats, said Kenneth Parker, executive director of the Dover-based Florida Strawberry Growers Association.

Dover-based BBI Produce Inc. began harvesting small amounts in early December.

“It’s been a little slower, but it’s still coming and the berries look great,” Chris Smith, sales manager, said in mid-December.

“Volume should be decent after Christmas. Instead of that hard pickup all at once that we had last year, this is regular increase and a more traditional season build.”

Dan Crowley, vice president of sales for Well-Pict Inc., Watsonville, Calif., said Florida plants in early and mid-December were producing steady volume in all stages of fruit but not heavily at any single stage.

“We will have increased volume and good promotional supplies in late December so buyers can set their strategies,” Crowley said in mid-December.

“The way the crop is looking, it has some very impressive fruit coming off the plants. The berries look good in terms of shape and the overall health of the fields is much better than in years past.”

Growers weren’t beset with replantings like last season, said Steve Machell, sales manager for Dover-based Gulf Coast Produce Inc.

“We are seeing more consistency,” he said in mid-December. “The quality looks really good and everything’s on track to be a nice season.”

Cammy Hinton, office manager for Hinton Farms Produce Inc., said the season is a strong one.

“The plants look healthy,” she said in mid-December. “This bodes well for a good season. We should have good volume and good quality.”

Salinas, Calif.-based Red Blossom, which grows and ships from Dover-based Parkesdale Farms, began harvesting Dec. 8, said Craig Casca, vice president.

“Quality has been outstanding,” he said in mid-December.

“The berries look and taste good and everything is looking well. We will be ramping up and rolling for some bigger volume for the Christmas holiday and promotable volume in early January.”